By Mitch Lies
(also read Dedicated to Ag Advocacy about Agriculturist of the year winner, Brent Fetsch)
Brent Fetsch, Oregon State President of Northwest Farm Credit Services, has long been an advocate for paying it forward, a term for giving back popularized by the 2000 movie “Pay It Forward.” By some estimates, he’s been doing so since he started at Northwest Farm Credit Services in 1987, two weeks after he graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in agricultural economics.
Through his work at the 16,000-member lending cooperative, Fetsch has helped farm and forestry operators maintain strong balance sheets and vital natural resource operations. And, as a long-time volunteer for charitable organizations and agricultural-based entities, Fetsch has distinguished himself as a dedicated contributor to rural America.
Fetsch, who once interned for Oregon Aglink (then the Agribusiness Council of Oregon), has been named winner of Oregon Aglink’s 2017 Ag Connection Award.
“I am flattered and humbled to win this award,” Fetsch said. “But I want to stress that, while I’m the guy who gets to go up on stage and receive the award, the connection I have with agriculture and rural American has been nurtured by a great many folks, including my parents, my FFA advisor in high school, my grandfather, my Oregon State University professors, my fabulous coworkers at Northwest Farm Credit Services and the farmers that I worked with over the years.”
Fetsch grew up on a small farm outside of Pendleton, and although his grandfather sold the farm in the 1980s, in some respects, he’s never left it.
“Farming is in my blood,” he said. “I worked for my dad and area farmers when I was young. I was active in FFA, and FFA is still important to me. I try to support that on a pay-it-forward basis. I feel like I got a lot out of it. It enriched my life tremendously.”
At Northwest Farm Credit Services, Fetsch most recently served as senior vice president of operations and chief information officer at the co-op’s headquarters in Spokane for four years, before taking the helm of the Oregon lending and insurance team in January of 2015.
While he had no idea he would still be with the lender/insurer when he started 30 years ago, it turns out he did have a good idea of his career choice even back then.
“I remember showing up at Oregon State knowing in advance that I wanted an agriculture and natural resources economics degree,” he said. “I was always interested in keeping track of the income and expenses from raising and selling livestock.
“So now here I am, trying to help our customers grow their agricultural enterprises through Northwest Farm Credit Services. It is such a rewarding place to work,” he said. “I love that all we do is work with agriculture, the food and fiber industries, and rural communities. I love that I am supporting industries that mean so much to me.”
Northwest Farm Credit’s commitment to agriculture can be seen in many ways, including the formation of a program for young farmers that has grown to encompass 1,400 customers. Called Ag Vision, it addresses what has become a significant issue in agriculture, the aging of the farm operator.
“The average age of the farm operator today is 59, and it keeps going up,” Fetsch said. “There is going to be significant change in ownership in the years ahead. So, one thing we’re doing to help address that is a special program to help young, beginning and small farmers get a toe-hold in agriculture.”
In the program, farmers who are less than 35-years old, have been farming for less than 10 years, or have less than $250,000 per year in gross sales are eligible for low-interest loans, often with reduced or waived fees. The program includes an educational element that Fetsch said is critical to its success.
“We put on seminars. We encourage them to get outside training through Oregon State or a community college,” he said. The program gives credits, which can be used to earn reduced interest rates, for attending educational seminars.
To date, the program has extended nearly $540 million to participants.
As for Fetsch, his commitment to the health of agriculture is evident in many ways. Fetsch serves on the board of the Oregon FFA Foundation. He serves on the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences Dean’s Council and meets regularly with OSU College of Forestry Dean Thomas Maness to provide support where needed. He also serves as treasurer of the Oregon Food Bank, joining a long list of Northwest Farm Credit Services leaders on food bank boards throughout the Northwest.
“It is a natural stewardship activity for us, given that we at Northwest Farm Credit Services work with the people that grow the food,” he said. “And we have such an abundance here in the Pacific Northwest and in Oregon, particularly, that it is hard for me to fathom why a child would go to school hungry.”
Also, he said, his service on the Oregon Food Bank Board of Directors offers an opening that he embraces: “It is an opportunity for me to engage with the Portland metropolitan area and share a rural perspective when the opportunity arises, one person at a time.”