Category: Executive Notes (page 2 of 2)

The State of Portland, and the Oregon National Park

geoff horning oregon aglinkHere’s the good news. By the time you read this column it will only be a couple more weeks before all the political vitriol will come to an end for another cycle. While I’m sure we’re going to elect the perfect President in November (sarcasm people), I’m far more concerned about some of the political posturing happening right here in Oregon.

Oregon has long been a bastion of activist activity. Some of it has been good for the environment and the economy, but much of it has been an over reach by an urban community out of touch with their rural neighbors.

Having grown up in Reedsport, I was surrounded by a proud community with a strong local economy thanks to International Paper and a robust forestry industry. Almost overnight I witnessed fear and anger as eco-terrorists entered the community, spiking trees and heralding the plight of an owl that nobody had even heard of. Some 30-odd-years later the Spotted Owl still hasn’t recovered, the Barred Owl thrives and a once proud community sits in economic shambles.

Many of those activists who strolled into town to demonstrate were from Portland, Eugene, Seattle and other urban destinations. Thankfully it was before the internet, or I could only imagine how many more would have come into town without a lick of forestry experience and told all the locals who spent generations caring for the forest everything they were doing wrong.

Reedsport is hardly the only rural community in Oregon that has been uprooted by larger urban populations who think they know better than the locals. It’s just one example that happens to hit close to home. While most in Oregon are currently debating the damage that will occur with the passing of Measure 97, my past history has me keeping a close eye on the furthest corner of the State and a push by activists to turn a large section of Malheur County into a Designated Monument.

Look, I’m okay with conservation. I believe it’s not just a good thing to do, but it’s our obligation to ensure a balanced ecosystem for future generations. I love to fly fish for trout and spend a lot of my “pleasure” time doing so. In fact, just a couple weeks ago I spent a week in the backwoods of Yellowstone, dancing around grizzly bear to fish one of the best trout fisheries in the world, the Lamar River. I LOVE National Parks.

Yet, I’m mortified that a legion of activists, mostly from other parts of the country thanks to KEEN Footwear, are making headway in turning the Owyhee Canyonlands into a Designated Monument. If successful this effort would significantly impact local ranchers from grazing their cattle. Why are they pushing for this designation you ask? The primary reason noted by the activist community is “it’s important to have areas like this for people to explore and love.”

Here’s the thing. They already can! Not only is this area designated as public lands that people can enjoy, there are also 5 National Parks or Monuments that already reside in Oregon, totaling 207,360 acres. There are more than 85,000 acres within 153 State Parks in Oregon. That doesn’t include the public lands along the Oregon coast, or the National Forests that reside throughout Oregon. That’s a lot of area for people to “explore and love.”

This designation will basically accomplish one thing, which is to restrict the cattle industry from thriving in a region that is already struggling to economically survive. Such a designation would devastate an entire area with no benefit to the greater society. It’s like watching my childhood manifest itself all over again. This time, though, I hope common sense prevails.

Denim & Diamonds is next month. The highlight of the event for me is the awards ceremony, but the purpose of the event is to raise money for our Cultivating Common Ground campaign. Engagement and education of our urban neighbors is our only option. We still have plenty of room, and we’d love to have your support. Every penny helps. Otherwise, we’ll soon live in the State of Portland, while everybody just visits the Oregon National Park.

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Geoff Horning, Executive Director

Labels Matter. Unless They Don’t.

geoff horning oregon aglinkMy first reaction was one of relief. Then it was the fear of the unknown and then even a little bit of depression. Of course, the depression may have been a result of the lackluster performance of the Oregon Ducks on the gridiron.

My life changed forever on September 8, 2015. During the previous two weeks I had lost nearly 20 pounds of muscle mass. I felt fine, or so I thought. But, I was shrinking and it was starting to scare me. I was convinced I was dying of cancer. At the urging of friends I decided denial was the incorrect path and went to the doctor.

Good news. It wasn’t cancer. The diagnosis, however, shocked me. I was active, ate modestly healthy and certainly wasn’t obese by any definition. Still, my blood sugar was so high my doctor suspects that if I had remained in denial, they would have found me in a coma within a couple of weeks. The diagnosis: type 2 diabetes, likely triggered by an allergic reaction I had earlier in the year to an antibiotic for a sinus infection.

Though I knew a few people with diabetes, I really didn’t know anything about the disease other than “don’t eat sweets.” Oh, how simplistic and incorrect that statement is.

I’ll be honest. I’d never paid attention to labels before. To me they were all just a marketing ploy. Now, before I purchase anything I’m looking for specific things such as carbohydrates, fiber and sodium. Is it really whole grain, or has it been processed and simply labeled as a wheat product? What’s the serving size? Does it have good fat or bad fat?

I’m lucky. In a very short amount of time I was able to get my diabetes under control through diet and exercise. Still, every single time I eat or drink something I have to pay attention and know these answers. My life literally depends upon it. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

I’m not alone. There are hundreds of legitimate health reasons why people need to pay attention to the food they consume. The label is an important tool that helps us live healthy and productive lives.

Labels matter. Unless they don’t.

Millions upon millions of dollars are being spent throughout the United States in an effort to ensure our food is labeled if GMO technology is being used. Huh? What? I’m perplexed. Other than fear of not understanding, am I missing something?

In fact, I’m insulted. I need accurate food labels to maintain my health. Telling me it’s a Genetically Modified Organism literally tells me nothing at all. GMO is a term used for a process and not a specific product. It has multiple applications. If I wasn’t informed, I would think that it’s a specific product that I need to watch for. An unscientific study on my Facebook page indicated exactly that. Or worse.

Consumers who don’t want to eat genetically modified foods can already buy non-GMO food, which is clearly labeled and has become a thriving niche industry. Heck, on a recent trip through my local Fred Meyer garden center I stumbled across their marketing of GMO free herbs. Seriously? But a growing chorus says that’s not enough: Critics of GMOs want all food that uses genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as well, despite the lack of scientific evidence that the distinction carries any difference.

In recent weeks, in order to comply with a Vermont law that requires labeling by July 1, major food manufacturers like ConAgra Foods, General Mills and Kellogg’s amongst others announced plans to label food items that have GMOs, despite being opposed to the Vermont legislation. They argue that a federal standard, not a patchwork of state laws, should be the norm.

While I can understand their decision, I disagree wholeheartedly. As somebody who now understands the importance of knowing what’s in his food, a GMO label of any kind is not providing me with any beneficial information and is simply creating an atmosphere of fear at a time when we’re going to need science more than ever to feed the world. The epidemic of scaring people about their food may have larger consequences than the diabetes epidemic sweeping across America.

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Geoff Horning, Executive Director

Oregon Agriculture Needs to Be More Proactive

geoff horningWhen it comes to being a fan of sports, I’m a pessimist. After 44 years of second place finishes, I expect my heart to be broken. I tend to live the rest of my life, though, as an optimist. A belief that common sense will rule the day. Listening to the political debates and testimony on the 400+ bills in Salem’s “short” session, I’m starting to think that common sense is being thrown out with the baby and the bath water.

Many of the issues have no impact on your ability to produce the food and fiber that are basic needs of everybody, but so many of them have unintended consequences that I fear we’re driving the family farmer out of business.

Oregon Aglink has taken great strides over the past several years to tell your story. Others, such as Oregon Women for Ag, Oregon Ag Fest, Farmers Ending Hunger, to name just a few, are doing a magnificent job of telling your story as well. It’s not hard to find positive publicity for an industry that is still the very foundation of this State.

Are we making progress? Absolutely. If you sit down and have a conversation with the majority of Oregonians I think you’ll find most are very respectful, almost reverent about the lifestyle and important role of local producers.

But (there’s always a but), those same Oregonians typically shrug their shoulders at the issues and challenges facing our industry. It’s not because they are mean spirited or even ignorant. They truly do trust you to feed their family. It has much more to do with the fact that they are so consumed with their busy lives that they don’t take the time to know what’s going on outside of their small community. They don’t care about the things that impact your ability to produce their food and fiber.

What they do learn comes from sound bites and social media. And, guess who has the funding resources and the loudest megaphone to dictate that message in Oregon? It’s definitely not the natural resources community. That leads to poor legislation and a constituency that thinks good things are happening because “it feels like the right thing to do.”

Research conducted by Oregon Aglink is very clear. The general public trusts the farmer more than anybody in the food chain. If I’m out telling your story by myself, you might as well hire a used car salesman to do my job. My credibility with the general public isn’t much better. Why? Because it’s perceived that I’m a hired gun only out for a paycheck. That’s not true, but perception is reality.

The good news is that Oregon Aglink is focused on making you the face of Oregon agriculture. Throughout 2016 we’ll be running a series of television commercials in Portland, Eugene and Medford. The entire focus of the “I am Oregon Agriculture” campaign will be about making a connection with Oregonians that local agriculture is made up of 98 percent family farms. With farm families telling that story.

The Adopt a Farmer Program, now in 47 schools and reaching almost 5,000 middle school students throughout Oregon, was specifically designed with the idea of connecting those students with one particular farmer throughout the school year. An emphasis of the program is putting a focus on the people and families who make up the farm.

Will these programs have instant impact? Probably not. We’ve got to play the long game, but to do that we need all of you to become more proactive. Get involved. Tell your story through us, or through one of the other great organizations that represents you. We have to make you the face of our industry before the family farm becomes extinct.

Oregon Aglink

geoff horningEven simple change can be difficult. I had a friend in college who simply couldn’t function if she didn’t have a specific type of pen to write with. Perhaps she was onto something, as today she’s one of the most successful persons I know both professionally and personally.

How difficult is change? I just texted her to inquire about her pen of choice. She sent me back a photo of her holding that same pen. Some things change, and some things stay the same. I can’t help but laugh at this little idiosyncrasy even today.

Now imagine changing a brand that is 50-years-old and has name recognition throughout the industry. It’s not a decision that comes lightly, or without more than a few conversations. It took us nine years of discussions before we pulled the trigger, but times are changing, and so are we.

At Denim & Diamonds, ABC President Molly McCargar announced to the more than 550 present that the Agri-Business Council of Oregon is now officially doing business as Oregon Aglink.

Why? While the decision is complex, the answer is fairly simple.

When the Agri-Business Council of Oregon was founded in 1966, our industry was still revered by most people, even those who live in Portland, Eugene and Salem. They may not have understood natural resources, but they appreciated and respected the work that was being done. Even in urban settings, being a farmer or rancher was a very noble profession. Agri-business was a term universally respected.

Today? Outside of natural resource circles, not so much.

Agri-business is looked at through a lens of distrust by most Oregonians. Research conducted a couple years ago by the Agri-Business Council of Oregon showed that those in urban centers trusted the individual farmer, but agri-business was not trustworthy, and in fact was deemed as corrupt and almost evil.

Now imagine being members of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon. Our spokespeople are the very farmers and ranchers who are universally beloved and respected. Yet, when representing a link between producers and the consumers – the name of the organization was getting in the way of the message.

The Adopt a Farmer program provides our industry with an awesome opportunity to have in-depth conversations with students, teachers and parents. Many of the conversations revolve around pesticide application, the debate surrounding GMO technology and the safety of our food. The depth of their questions are sincere. Rarely with a hint of malice. They just want to be informed.

More and more people want to know where their food and fiber comes from, how it was produced, and even the famous Portlandia skit isn’t too far off. Some do want to know what the name of their chicken is that they’re about to eat. When having that conversation the board of directors decided it’s time to soften our presentation. We want to be that trusted link for the consumer to come to. We want to be that comfortable pen that you can’t live without.

We are the Oregon Aglink.

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A Golden Celebration

geoff horning1966.

The “8th Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome was built.

The first episode of Star Trek airs.

Pampers created the first disposable diaper.

Ronald Reagan entered politics for the first time – eventually being elected Governor of California.

My parents started dating.

And, Marion T. Weatherford, an Eastern Oregon wheat farmer, led a small group of agricultural supporters to create the Agri-Business Council of Oregon.

Honestly, I have no idea if a specific event inspired Weatherford to create our association. I do know he understood a schism was forming between rural and urban Oregon and he wanted to create an organization that could have an open conversation with his neighbors in Portland, Salem, Eugene, etc.

Over the first 49 years the Agri-Business Council has pulled off some pretty revolutionary things. Did you know ABC was one of the first organizations to ever do grocery story food sampling? If we could get Costco to give us royalties for that concept we wouldn’t have to put so much effort into fundraising!

We were very political at one point. In fact, both Representative Stafford Hansell and Senator Mike Thorne served as president of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon WHILE they were in office. Today, we leave the politics in the very capable hands of the Oregon Farm Bureau and other agricultural associations.

ABC sponsored pig races have been held in the streets of downtown Portland, and a kissing booth was built to raise funds during the Northwest Ag Show. I have been trying to convince the current ABC Board of Directors to participate in a similar booth at Denim & Diamonds, but if I push too hard I fear they’ll make me kiss the pig.

As an organization, we’re about to turn 50. We’ve become more mature as an organization. If not, I’d win that debate with the board and a kissing booth would be at every event we attend. Like a fine Oregon Pinot Noir, we continue to evolve.

At Denim & Diamond next month we will start a year-long celebration highlighting the efforts we’ve made over the past 50 years, and we’ll talk about a barn dance we’re planning for next August to celebrate our golden anniversary.

With that said, our focus is not on the past but on the future. Big changes are ahead. Announcements will be made at Denim & Diamonds in November, but at our core we’ll still be doing what Weatherford set out to do in 1966. We’ll just skip the part where the executive director kisses the pig.

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Geoff Horning

From Revolution to Evolution

geoff horningLooking into the mirror and seeing your blemishes is usually an easy endeavor for most people. When you have a face for radio like I do, that’s an easy mission to accomplish. What’s more difficult is publicly admitting those blemishes.

Four years ago the ABC Board of Directors took a look into the mirror, saw its blemishes, and publicly declared that we were not doing a good enough job fulfilling our mission. Worse, there was no clear cut focus or direction.

A strategic planning session was scheduled. Frankly, the first one was a mitigated disaster. A facilitator was hired and, despite impeccable credentials and valued references, we walked away after two days feeling like the only thing we had accomplished was holding hands and singing kum-ba-yah.

It may have been the defining moment for the Agri-Business Council of Oregon, though, as a revolution was underway. Over the next several weeks some very difficult decisions were made:

Oregon’s Best Contests – a program that ABC had sponsored at the Oregon State Fair and county fairs throughout Oregon for two decades was cut.

An association health insurance program that was a significant revenue stream for the association was sold.

Several other projects that distracted from the mission were also cut.

When the revolution was complete, the only programs still standing were our safety and workers’ comp program, our road crop sign program and continued support of Ag Fest.

Rising from the ashes, though, was the birth of two programs that have invigorated the staff, the board and the industry support of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon. The Adopt a Farmer program is receiving recognition throughout the Northwest, and organizations from other states are inquiring about ways they can implement a similar program in their regions. And the “I am Oregon Agriculture” campaign, in conjunction with the development of the www.oregonfresh.net website, is putting the face of our industry in front of those who have questions for our farmers and ranchers.

Last month, the ABC Board of Directors and some key contributors to our efforts met for another strategic planning session. The conversation this time was not about lighting a torch, but about building upon the momentum we’ve made.

Over the past four years we’ve worked hard to lay a solid foundation, and perhaps we’ve even put up a beam or two. But, we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us before we’re a completed unit. While the primary focus will remain on building upon the programs we’ve recently established, there are also some exciting new ideas in development which will be unveiled in the months ahead. None of this would be possible without your membership. You’re a part of ABC’s evolution.

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Geoff Horning

War of the Words

geoff horning“You should be ashamed of yourself for caring more about the cows in Asia than the hardworking people in Portland.”

That is the PG version of an anonymous voicemail I recently received from somebody who was upset with my benign quote in an NPR interview. The focus of the interview was the impact of the labor strife at West Coast ports on agriculture. My sin, verbatim: “The problem with the hay component is that the dairies or the beef producers or whoever wants that hay and straw in the Asian market – they have animals they need to feed. And if their customers are not receiving their product, they’re going to start looking for other avenues to get that product.”

I suspect that the person who took the time out of their day to look up my phone number and place the call was less concerned about agricultural practices, and more concerned with her job, or that of somebody close to her. But, that’s not always the case.

Molly McCargar, current ABC president, was asked to be a farmer’s voice in the most recent GMO labeling initiative that was voted down in November. During the campaign, her credibility was repeatedly chastised by opponents despite the fact that she is a multi-generation farmer. Late night hang ups and death threats were popular ploys as well.

Whether it’s a labor strife, GMO legislation or numerous other issues facing Oregon agriculture, the common thread with the heightened level of anxiety is the response to a reactionary discussion. Rarely does this level of vitriol come from a proactive engagement. That’s why as an industry, it’s imperative that we have ongoing conversations with our urban neighbors.

Every industry is vulnerable to crisis, but few generate the passion that agriculture does. Everybody eats and more people every day want to know where their food comes from and the measures taken by the producer to ensure that the food is safe.

The advent of the internet has made it easy for everybody to find information that fits their preconceived notions. The days of playing ostrich are gone. We are an industry in crisis. Without a proactive crisis communication plan Oregon’s producers risk more than just a damaged reputation, but urban-based legislation that will negatively impact their bottom line.

The basic steps of effective crisis communication are not difficult, but they require advance work to minimize damage. The slower the response, the more damage is incurred.

The Agri-Business Council of Oregon is trying to do its part. We communicate with our urban neighbors on several different platforms, but our most effective conversation with long-term results lies within the Adopt a Farmer program.

While the focus of the program is to emphasize the critical scientific components that allow producers, regardless of production method, to feed the world, the ancillary benefits of the program are the relationships forged with an impressionable audience. It’s much easier to have a conversation with students open to learning than it is with adults who have preconceived opinions that are often inaccurate. The program is being received in such a positive light that Susan Duncan, a recently retired Beaverton science teacher of more than 30 years wrote us in a letter:

“The Adopt a Farmer Program has been the highlight of my career, both in the experience of teaching and the years I spent providing environmental education. It is a partnership between teachers and farmers who understand how important it is that students learn observation skills and economics, as well as problem solving and engineering.”

The Adopt a Farmer program is touching lives and leaving an impression. Each spring we start recruiting producers who would be interested in being “adopted.” To learn more about the program feel free to contact me, and also take a moment to watch this video: http://oregonfresh.net/videos/adopt-a-farmer/. As an industry we have to become more proactive in telling our story. We represent the most important industry to the human race and the best people in the world. It’s time that got more recognition. Please help me by speaking up and telling your story.

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Geoff Horning

Executive Notes: Pop Culture’s Influence on Ag’s Future

geoff horningIn the 1940s and 50s, comic books were blamed for corrupting our children. In the 90s, rap music was blamed for everything from school shootings, to violence towards women, to the promotion of gang culture. And more recently, video games have been scapegoated as the source of America’s fascination with violence.

Often, members of these scapegoated communities will argue back with similarly misguided rhetoric. Many will say something like, “I’ve been playing video games since I was 3 and I didn’t turn into some violent ghoul.”

But this statement is only half correct. Of course an entire medium cannot be trivialized into being inherently good or bad, but the statement also seems to suggest that the things that define our culture (video games, movies, TV etc.) have no effect on how we behave as a culture.

And how can that be true? How can something people engage in so closely and passionately have no influence on people and how we think?

Recently I attended the Oregon Society of Association Management annual conference and Shelly Alcorn with Alcorn Associates Management Consulting made a very compelling presentation about pop culture’s impact in telling our message.

Pop culture isn’t just for entertainment anymore. The Internet has vastly increased our media consumption habits. A recent Business News Daily report indicates that the average American spends 23 hours a week emailing, texting, and using social media. That represents 14 percent of the total time in a week. And for the record, that’s not just kids. That’s all ages.

If you think this has no impact on agriculture, you’d be wildly mistaken. It’s common knowledge in politics that the person/issue with the biggest war chest is going to win the election. Thanks to a groundswell of support via pop culture channels that is no longer true in agriculture. And, you don’t even have to leave Oregon to see the results.

During the Jackson County initiative this past spring proponents of the ban on GMOs raised $411,739, while opponents of the ban raised $928,764. Such a discrepancy should indicate that the opponents of the ban would win in a landslide. A landslide did happen. Nearly 66 percent of the voters approved the ban.

Though Measure 92 failed, a similar phenomenon occurred.

I realize that GMOs are a hotly debated issue right now, but why? It’s not like one day everybody got up and decided that they no longer liked their chocolate chip cookies. It’s more than simple coincidence that the issue started coming to the forefront as social media started to explode.

When you spend 23 hours a week taking in our latest pop culture craze you are going to start following subjects that interest you. Food is something that interests everybody in one way or another, and it’s a subject that draws people in. We have an opportunity still to be at the forefront of that conversation, and the one thing we better have learned from Measure 92 is that it’s far less expensive to be proactive than reactive.

So, I implore you to get active on social media. Help tell our story. Don’t tell people what to think. Engage them. Talk to them. Learn about their concerns and have a conversation.

If we don’t, somebody else will. And, well, you know we can believe everything we read on the Internet.

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Geoff Horning

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