By Scott A. Yates

Reading the minutes from the first meeting of the Washington Wheat Commission held on April 30, 1958 reveals the creation of an organization that went through some birthing pains.
Or as Joe Dwyer, then the director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said as acting chairman of the organization at the inaugural meeting: “Our critics are numerous and they are becoming more organized. There is much opposition that we have to be prepared for. There will be accusations and misrepresentation, mismanagement, deceit and slander, which usually develops with miscellaneous opposition.” Washington Grain Commission 60th Anniversary Cake
But Dwyer was also hopeful. He said it had been a gratifying experience to work with the farmers who had helped to form the commission and that there was a definite need for it in the fields of marketing, promotion and research.
“The thing that impressed us (the WSDA) most is the fine spirit of cooperation, unselfish activity displayed on the part of so many that have looked on this organization as a vehicle for a productive group to do things for themselves they cannot do in any other way,” he said.
The Washington Wheat Commission was the eighth commodity commission established in the state. Those that came before include: The Apple Commission, 1937; the Dairy Products Commission, 1939; the Fruit Commission, 1947; the Bulb Commission, 1956; the Potato Commission, 1956; the Seed Potato Commission, 1956 and the Fryer Commission, 1957. There are now 22 commodity commissions in the state.
The first minutes reflect an organization taking hesitant steps with a combination of professionalism and by guess and by golly. Verne Barbre was elected chairman at the meeting. He was the unanimous choice which must have been a reflection of his character. A search of the web, however, reveals little more about him than the location of his resting place in the Ephrata cemetery. He didn’t live to see the organization he was first elected to lead, mature into the organization it would become. He died in 1961, the same year he was appointed a WSU regent. He was 52.
At that first meeting, Walter Mikkelsen was put forward for secretary-treasurer. But Mikkelsen wasn’t sure he wanted the honor. As the minutes put it:
“Mr. Mikkelsen stated he believed firmly in the Commission, but he had a full time job. Would act as temporary officer but if it developed into more time, day to day thing, would have to reconsider it.”
It’s important to remember that at the first meeting of the commission there was no staff. In fact, until the commission unanimously voted to select Spokane as headquarters at the meeting, there was debate about where it should locate. Petitions from Franklin and Adams counties had been submitted asking that the organization be headquartered in Ritzville. Commissioners indicated their choice of Spokane was for its accessibility, access to clerical help and office space.
During the first meeting, a reimbursement rate for commissioners was established of $20 per day during meetings and $9 per diem. If that sounds like a paltry sum, it is actually far more than today’s commissioners receive on an inflation adjusted basis. Twenty-nine dollars in 1958 is worth $251 in 2018 according to the Consumer Price Index.
From that first gathering, the commission made a point of stating that its meetings would be open to the public. Another department of agriculture official in attendance discussed the need for “a newsletter to producers keeping them aware of what you are doing. Probably will be expensive and you cannot do anything about it until you get a manager.”
In fact, there was very little the commission could do until funding from an assessment on each bushel of wheat began to come in—and that wouldn’t happen until after harvest.
Speaking to a banker in attendance to discuss the commission’s future deposits, Barbre told him: “We are in business officially today. We will be operating during the next two or three months without any money because there will be no collections coming until this crop is harvested. We have expenses to meet and, of course, we hope that we will have collections and money to deposit somewhere later on.”
After voting to support a railroad freight rate reduction (yes, a reduction!) by writing a letter to the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first meeting of the Washington Wheat Commission adjourned at 4:45 p.m.
Since that first session 60 years ago, hundreds of commission meetings have been held as dozens of different farmers have disbursed millions of dollars representing the interests of Eastern Washington farmers. Priorities have remained the same throughout: research, market development and education (replacing the word “promotion”). Only now, thanks to the pioneering work of the first board, the WGC has a history.
An industry working together can accomplish great things. Or as the WSDA’s Dwyer put it during the first meeting, the WGC “ is a vehicle for a productive group to do things for themselves they cannot do in any other way.”