Monday, March 31, 2008

Sideline was great place for watching the ag game

By Scott A. Yates
of Capital Press

Editor's note: Longtime Capital Press reporter is hanging up his notebook and taking up his briefcase. April 4, 2008 will be his last day at Capital Press.

After 21 years being an observer of agriculture, I’m looking forward to being its advocate.
I am departing the Capital Press for the Washington Grain Alliance, where I will assume the post of director of communications.

Working from my Spokane home these past two decades has been a marvelous experience. Unbeknownst to Capital Press readers, I raised three daughters, went through a divorce and (happily, blissfully) remarried during my tenure at the paper.

I also grew from a man with a ponytail who knew next to nothing about agriculture to a man who shaves his head and knows quite a bit about the subject. It has been unique experience learning about the best-kept secret in America: our incredibly productive and safe agricultural food system.

You might think that being on or near the front lines of every food disaster that’s occurred in the past two decades would temper my enthusiasm. Instead, the failures have only reinforced my opinion that the United States has capable, honorable people overseeing a complex system that will never be perfect.

Are there glitches, bad apples, poor examples? Sure, but taken as a whole, I have faith in the system.

Progress is not a place, it’s a process. Working toward excellence doesn’t mean you achieve the goal.

I can’t forecast the future, but I am willing to bet that in 2028 consumers are even more isolated from their food production than they are now.

That’s troubling because the more removed people become, the less likely they care about where their food is grown. And the less they care, the more we, as a nation, will succumb to the temptation to outsource agriculture.

We got a taste, a small inkling, of what depending on foreign sources for our food needs could lead to almost a year ago now.

Remember the Chinese company that sold tainted wheat gluten that was made into pet food. “If you like imported oil, you’ll love imported food” is not just a bumpersticker.

After 21 years covering agriculture, I know “Made in America” means something when it comes the food we produce and consume.

The process isn’t always pretty and rarely clean, descriptions that can also be applied to the politics of agriculture. I started as a reporter for Capital Press when Tom Foley of Washington state’s 5th District was Speaker of the House, a man who could bring home the bacon, but who still got tossed out by farmers who believed his power had isolated him.

His successor, George “The Giant Killer” Nethercutt was a natural at his job. Put on an appropriations subcommittee as reward for having defeated Foley, he was a powerful force from his first day.

Nethercutt loved ruffling feathers, whether it was trying to fire USDA employees for their treatment of his agriculture constituents or becoming the lightning rod for opening trade with Cuba.

Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., has had a harder road to travel. Elected in 2004, she started at the bottom, worked hard and still doesn’t have the visibility of Nethercutt in his first year.
Like Nethercutt, McMorris forsook the agriculture committee for other assignments. She isn’t alone. The entire West is deficient in agriculture committee members in the House and the Senate. Want more clout for the region’s agriculture? Start there.

Although national politics is considered the apex of the art form, don’t count out university politics. There are a lot of brilliant, even noble people at universities, but if there is a more dysfunctional institution, I have not come upon it. What should be utopia all too often devolves into a caste system where enforcing the hierarchy is more important than fulfilling the mission.
When I started at Capital Press in 1986, it meant doing a lot of interviews between 7 and 9 p.m. — after the farmer had gotten in, but before he had gone to bed.

No more. Cell phones have made everybody accessible everywhere. I’ve talked to farmers in their pickups, combines and tractors. I’ve talked to them on vacation. I’ve talked to them overseas.

Communication advances have, in fact, shaped my time at Capital Press.

In the early days, I shipped strips of negatives by Greyhound bus to Salem. Now, I move digital photographs on my computer from one software program to another and, with the click of a button, send them instantly over the Internet.

Once upon a time, when my children were young and we would all tuck in for a big breakfast, I’d ask them to name all those we should thank for our meal.

Try it sometime. Almost any meal includes a list that is at least a dozen people long before it starts to get complicated. There’s the farmer who grew the wheat for the pancakes, the corn for the syrup, the potatoes for the hash browns, the pork for the sausage, the beans for the coffee, the oranges for the juice.

But don’t stop there.

Agriculture is a system. Thank the USDA inspectors, the country elevator operators, the barge captains, the railroad engineers, the truck drivers, the store stockers.

Aw heck, while you’re at it, go ahead and thank the agricultural reporters, too.

Staff writer Scott Yates is based in Spokane, Wash., until Friday, April 4, 2008.

Read Capital Press Managing Editor Carl Sampson's column about Yates' departure on the Capital Press Website.

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