Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor has nearly completed her first year on the job with a feeling of excitement and opportunity for 2018.
Given her previous experience at the federal level and all that she has learned while serving in Oregon, Taylor has a unique perspective on where the industry may be headed in the new year, both at the state and national level. Director Taylor’s comments are part of an interview reviewing 2017 and previewing 2018. In the interview, she focuses on issues related to the agriculture industry as a whole:
After your first year as Director, what are your overall impressions of Oregon agriculture?
One of the things that really impresses me is its diversity. I knew Oregon produces more than 225 commodities. But I was able to travel all over the state and see it first hand, talking to growers who may be producing 10 different crops in the Willamette Valley and then someone in Harney County producing grass and cattle. Personally meeting the people who are growing those crops first hand and learning about their challenges and opportunities – while I may have understood Oregon ag’s diversity intellectually, it was different on a practical level. Another strong impression about the industry is how resilient it is. Diversity allows us to often ride out some of those challenging times because people are growing so many different things or be willing to try something new. Oregon growers are innovative and experimental – willing to try new things. I am sure it can sometimes be scary, but they seem excited by the prospect.
What are currently some of the key challenges for the industry?
One of the big challenges we currently see are low commodity prices. For every good year, you can ride out a bad year, maybe two. But you can’t ride out 10. So it’s a challenge to try and navigate those prices and deal with higher input costs. Margins are tighter, but people who farm and ranch still need to make money. They farm because they love it, but it’s still a business and they are still providing for a family. Prices are a big challenge that will continue in the short term.
Also, water continues to be one of the most important components of Oregon agriculture and a challenge. How do we capitalize on our water resources in the most responsible way for all uses? That’s even more important as we see longer stretches of dry periods. It’s important that we find the best way to protect natural resources while allowing farmers and ranchers the economic benefit that water provides.
What are some of the key opportunities?
One highlight is the constant innovation we see in Oregon. Our food sector is really creative. If someone is willing to pay a farmer, rancher, or entrepreneur to try something, they are willing to try it. That’s pretty exciting. An example is Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center in Portland, which is doing a lot of exciting and fascinating work with the food industry, connecting and helping small businesses tap into new markets and figure out what consumers want. Oregon is definitely known for that innovation across the country and around the world.
The other thing that is exciting and a big opportunity is our location and proximity to some of the growing populations and middle classes of the world. By 2030, 66 percent of the world’s middle class is going to live in Asia. What’s one of the first things anyone does when they start making a little more money? They buy safe, high quality food products – meat, protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products – all things Oregon happens to excel at growing. There’s a lot of opportunity for us to capture those new consumers.
Nationally, Congress is starting to build the next Farm Bill. What does that mean to Oregon?
The Farm Bill is key to pretty much every aspect and every part of every Oregonian’s life. People usually think of the Farm Bill as an insurance program for farmers and ranchers. But really, it’s key to protecting food safety, protecting our natural resource base through good conservation practices, funding research, paying for the school lunch program, providing grant money to help our specialty crops, and developing the programs we use to help our folks gain access to foreign markets, just to name a few. The Farm Bill is vital to our farming and ranching community, but it’s also vital to all Oregonians. We are watching with a critical eye those programs important to Oregon that are funded through the Farm Bill and will advocate to help make sure these programs can stay strong.
What other national issues and federal government efforts will be important in 2018?
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is going to continue to be a big topic. ODA will continue working with our industry on FSMA implementation. Another important national issue is international trade. Whether it is the US trying to modernize an existing trade agreement or negotiating a new one – Oregon farmers, fishers, ranchers, and agri-businesses cannot afford to be sitting on the global sidelines. Part of ODA’s mission is to help Oregon products find markets abroad, but we need strong federally-negotiated trade agreements to ensure those products face a level playing field once they arrive, including a level playing field on the tariffs or taxes upon arrival.
What has to happen in 2018 for Oregon agriculture to generally be successful?
One big piece is being able to find new markets. That can be new markets locally. That can be helping small producers partner together to create a regional, local food hub so that they have an economy of scale that allows them to tap into larger, local institutions. New markets can be found domestically in other states and internationally. We have to be vigilant and laser focused on new market opportunities to help Oregon farmers, ranchers, and agribusinesses of all sizes to continue being successful.