Connecting the dots for future success in Washington agriculture
Dr. Wendy Powers began her role as the dean of Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) in August 2022. Washington Grain Commission (WGC) CEO Casey Chumrau recently sat down with Dr. Powers to talk shop about how best their two organizations can collaborate, share knowledge and advance the goals of Washington’s farmers. The kind of conversation that you might have with your farm manager or landlord on a truck ride out to the field or over a cup of coffee, these two agricultural leaders jump right in and don’t shy away from big picture ideas, fresh perspectives or chasing deeper questions. Their conversation is edited for length and clarity.
WENDY: While we are both new in our positions, I wonder if you see opportunities to collaborate more closely?
CASEY: Being new in our positions, we have the advantage of fresh eyes and a responsibility to ask lots of questions. This is an opportunity to evaluate how things have always been done and look for new and innovative ways to meet agriculture’s evolving needs. Regular communication and sharing information that we learn traveling around the state will help both of us better serve our stakeholders. We met each other before either one had officially started our new positions, then you were on my first trip with the WGC. I think that personal connection will allow us to have honest and frequent conversations about how to collaborate effectively.
CASEY: What is your vision for CAHNRS in the next one to five years?
WENDY: To position CAHNRS for continued excellence in research, teaching and Extension, thus contributing to a Washington that is resilient to whatever the future holds, whether it be climate change, economic uncertainty, a global pandemic, or war. CAHNRS must assess how to achieve the desired future state and align our efforts accordingly. This alignment will take time as we identify priorities, shift current work, and establish support for future initiatives.
CASEY: What do you see as the biggest barriers or challenges to realizing your goals?
WENDY: The biggest challenge is having enough people, equipment and other resources to allow CAHNRS talent to pivot and direct time toward emerging risks.
The research underway now is important for responding to today’s challenges. To address future challenges in a fixed resource environment, some current efforts must be reduced to tackle new topics. With fixed resources, we would have more people to simultaneously work on today’s challenges and tomorrow’s threats, along with the necessary facilities, and equipment.
CASEY: Why are partnerships with industry important to the success of CAHNRS?
WENDY: Partnerships are critical to our success. Partners ensure that we stay in touch with stakeholder needs and help CAHNRS talent prioritize efforts and implement science-based solutions. It is a constant feedback loop: challenges are identified, solutions are posed and executed, and necessary refinements are pinpointed before adaptations are researched and implemented.
Partners are with us every step of the way. They include individuals from agencies, commodities and the private sector, as well as end-use stakeholders who provide input and feedback as we work to build the economic, health and environmental resilience of families and communities statewide.
CASEY: How can the grain industry be more collaborative and/or proactive?
WENDY: The grain industry is one of our strongest partners. Collaboration is not lacking, and we want to maintain that while looking for opportunities to expand. Open, honest communication is key. CAHNRS won’t do everything right; we need to know when we miss the mark, and we need to work together to build out the vision for the future state, including where key investments in CAHNRS are needed.
Also important is a willingness to engage in tough conversations about where we might disinvest to accommodate future need. Every grain grower goes through similar processes in their own operations. CAHNRS wants the industry to be proactively at the table as we plan a future that supports it.
CASEY: What are the biggest challenges to getting more young people interested in agriculture?
WENDY: I suspect there is a widespread perception that agriculture is low-paying, back-breaking field work, but it is more than that. I think there is a lack of awareness about the current state of agriculture and the technical skills needed to support it. An understanding of how someone breaks into agriculture from the outside is also lacking.
As someone who grew up removed from agriculture, I had no idea there were jobs — other than veterinarian — where I could work with animals. I never imagined I would leave my undergraduate program with a plan to pursue a career in agriculture. I was fortunate that my college roommates exposed me to the dairy industry and allied agribusiness opportunities. Without those connections, I’m not sure how or if I would have made it to my graduate programs.
If we can connect agriculture to other fields of study (sociology, economics, engineering, genetics, natural resources management, etc.) and reframe it as food and health, perhaps more students will be drawn to CAHNRS degree programs.
WENDY: How might we work together to increase enrollment in CAHNRS and guarantee a next generation of well-trained students prepared to ensure safe, accessible food and a strong agriculture economy for Washington?
CASEY: I agree with your statement that we need to do a better job of showing the diversity of jobs and skills needed within agriculture. You don’t have to be a farm kid or directly employed by production agriculture to make a meaningful impact in securing a safe and abundant food supply for the world. You and I both “lucked” our way into fulfilling, successful careers in agriculture, and I’d like to see a more strategic effort to reach young students and get them thinking about all the possibilities within our industry. I know my colleagues and I would be happy to work with CAHNRS in recruiting efforts, storytelling, information dissemination and student engagement.
CASEY: How can we ensure that the wheat and barley research being done at WSU truly benefits the Washington grain grower?
WENDY: Continued annual discussions about what is needed and continued grower support are imperative to ensuring relevant research. Communication is key so we can plan what is needed, compile the resources needed to accomplish the work, and deliver on research findings that are relevant to Washington grain grower needs.
The WGC’s invitation to CAHNRS scientists and leaders to attend regular meetings is much appreciated and provides an avenue to talk about relevant research needs.
CASEY: How do you hope to engage with grain growers as dean of CAHNRS?
WENDY: In addition to working closely with you, Casey, and attending WGC meetings as much as possible, I plan to spend much of my time out in the state, attending field days and grower events. This will ensure that the lines of communication are open, and that I understand growers’ challenges and successes.
I have much to learn about Washington grain production and am eager to do so. I hope growers are comfortable approaching me when we are in person or reaching out by email or phone when we are not. I don’t promise an immediate solution, but I can commit to working toward one.