Oregon Ag Dept. signals economic optimism for 2011

ODA Director feeling more optimistic about ag in 2011
Katy Coba sees a slow but certain economic turnaround

Challenges remain on the horizon for Oregon agriculture heading into 2011, but the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture has a sense of optimism for the industry. Katy Coba, entering her ninth year as ODA director, is looking forward to an economy that is slowly rebounding from a difficult stretch, and a number of opportunities arising throughout the new year.

Director Coba’s comments are part of an interview previewing the year 2011:

What is your forecast for Oregon agriculture in 2011?

“I think 2011 is going to be much better than 2010. People see that the economy has hit bottom and is coming back up. Clearly there are sectors that are not recovering as quickly as we hope. A couple of those sectors- in particular, housing and construction- correlate to some of our larger producing sectors in Oregon agriculture such as nursery and grass seed. Those are areas that could still be slower to recover than other parts of Oregon agriculture.”

“Meanwhile, we are seeing some very interesting dynamics nationally and internationally with agriculture. Commodity demand is up. Wheat prices, as an example, are up. Beef prices are starting to move up. There are also some potential developments with trade agreements. If we can get the free trade agreement with South Korea ratified, that would be a big help for Oregon agriculture as it continues to look for opportunities in the international marketplace. These things are going to certainly help the bottom line for Oregon agriculture, but also people’s feeling about where the economy is going and being able to see a light at the end of the tunnel. So I’m very optimistic for 2011.”

For Oregon agriculture, do you still see equal importance between local, domestic, and international markets, which you have referred to in the past as a three-legged stool?

“Absolutely. The legs on the stool are maybe even stronger than they’ve been in the past- at least one of those legs, and that’s the local market. We continue to see very strong demand and interest in Oregon agriculture by people wanting to buy local and supporting the Oregon farmer. Oregonians want to keep Oregon agriculture in business. We see it with the continued support for farmers’ markets, the continued strong and growing support for Community Supported Agriculture, and local farm direct sales to restaurants. We are very excited about farm to school and school garden programs. The local leg is very exciting even though there still are challenges in terms of a distribution system that is not really set up to support local agriculture all the time. The Oregon Department of Agriculture can do some work to help local or smaller farmers access local markets.”

“The domestic market doesn’t take as much support from ODA itself, but we certainly jump in whenever we see industry sectors that want assistance from us.”

“Internationally, there continues to be growth in China and Oregon is very active in that market. We continue efforts in Japan- it’s still our number one overseas market for Oregon agricultural products. The opportunities in South Korea and Southeast Asia are all something we need to continue working on. We see much more interest in India for the same reasons we are interested in China. There is a very large population with a growing middle class. The high-end products Oregon has to offer are very good items for India- our specialty crops in particular. ODA has attended food shows in that market. Buyers from India come to Oregon and we connect them with our producers. India is potentially a great opportunity for Oregon agriculture.”

In the area of natural resource protection, what are the issues for the new year?

“The one word that comes to mind is water. The issue is two-pronged- water quantity and water quality. We see a great interest or growing pressure, from a regulatory standpoint, on agriculture and its contribution to Oregon’s water quality and making sure we are indeed minimizing our impacts on water quality. I think where we really have to spend some time in the next year, as a department and an industry, is talking about the good things Oregon agriculture is doing currently when it comes to water quality. There are a lot of projects on the ground to try and improve all kinds of things that contribute positively to water quality. Many of these projects minimize the negative impacts by focusing on riparian structure, which then reduces sediment and toxics into the water. There is so much going on but we aren’t communicating it very well. Task number two is to continue encouraging the work on the ground that is being done, and find opportunities to bring in more resources to keep moving forward.”

“On the water quantity side, the work that is being led by the Oregon Water Resources Department on creating an integrated water resources strategy for the state is very important. That work is absolutely critical in laying a framework for dealing with water quantity shortages in this state. All over the state, we experience water shortages in the summer. With climate change, that issue is only going to get worse. We need to continue focusing on conserving water but also identify new ways to store winter water for use in the summer.”

“The other hot topic in the natural resources area is around pesticides. There are a lot of federally-driven regulatory issues with pesticides and new rules coming down on soil fumigants. We’re trying to learn all these new regulations and convey that information to the industry so it can continue using pesticides properly.”

Where do you hope Oregon agriculture will be in 2012?

“Honestly, I would like farmers and ranchers in Oregon in the year 2011 to be able to make money. So many of them have weathered a very difficult storm. The reason we have not seen more producers go out of business is because they were in good financial state going into this economic downturn. That’s not where they are right now. So many of them are at the point where they either have to make money or I think we will see them going out of business. I’m hopeful that we really do see the economy turn around so that producers can make money, can right-size their operations, and can put themselves in a better position to move forward, taking advantage of new opportunities, wherever they may be.”

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