Thinking back on 2020, but looking forward to 2021

By Michelle Hennings
WAWG Executive Director

This year…WOW! I really hope 2021 will be the year that we get back to some normalcy. I’m ready to put 2020 in the rearview mirror, as I’m sure many of you are, as well. 

Life, both personally and professionally, in a pandemic, has been interesting. On the positive side, I’ve gotten to enjoy more quality time with my family, as my kids haven’t been as preoccupied with school and sports, and I haven’t been traveling like I used to. I’ve attended more virtual meetings and gotten involved in a number of groups I wouldn’t normally be able to, but I do miss the personal interactions, and I feel like in-person meetings are more effective for networking and relationship building.

We’ve all had to learn to be more flexible, and I really want to thank the Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ (WAWG) leadership for their patience and understanding. Most of our WAWG staff have young kids, and it’s been a struggle to balance working from home and doing homeschooling. As our school district has transitioned into part time schooling, our leadership team has allowed us to come up with a schedule that fits our employees’ needs. Currently, our office is staffed full time with one staff member. We rotate who that person is, and, if it isn’t our turn to be in the office, we continue our work from home. We haven’t seen a slip in communication or a decrease in the work being accomplished. 

I’m extremely proud of our team, and I can’t say enough about how dedicated they all are. Despite not being in the office at the same time, we work hard to make sure we are all aware of what’s happening in Olympia and Washington, D.C., as well as the issues farmers are dealing with and other grower concerns. We have an amazing team, and that’s why we’ve been able to be effective, even during a pandemic.

One of the big differences we’ve made in the past six months is making sure all wheat is eligible for the second round of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments. We worked closely with the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and our Farm Service Agency (FSA) state director, Jon Wyss, to prove to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that all wheat has been impacted by COVID-19. We also saw one of our top 2018 Farm Bill priorities come to pass when the Risk Management Agency instituted a quality loss option that protects producers’ 10-year actual production history, especially in cases where the loss isn’t big enough to trigger an indemnity payment. 

This quality loss option is the culmination of a years-long effort by WAWG, NAWG and members of our federal delegation that began in earnest in 2016 after much of the Pacific Northwest was hit with low falling numbers. It was devastating as growers lost millions of dollars that year due to quality discounts, but because yields were high, very few of them qualified for a crop insurance payment. We made many trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with USDA agencies and with House and Senate ag committees to explain the issue and its impacts. Getting this accomplished through the farm bill gives us a sense of accomplishment, but we have much more work to get done. It is a constant battle to educate and advocate for our farmers’ needs, but having NAWG at the federal level to lead efforts like this is a huge benefit to wheat farmers everywhere in the U.S.

Another big success for Washington wheat growers was the August release of the final Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which identified a preferred alternative that did not include dam breaching. WAWG worked with a coalition of Pacific Northwest stakeholders to educate and inform the public on the benefits of the Columbia-Snake River System dams, and we participated in multiple stakeholder interviews and provided data to the federal agencies in charge of the EIS. We also submitted comments in support of the dams. 

I’d like to say the dam-breaching issue is settled once and for all, but I think we all know that’s not the case. In fact, I know of at least one environmental group that has already given notice of their intent to file a lawsuit. WAWG spends a huge amount of time defending the dams and explaining why they are so vital to our industry. Fortunately, our federal delegation also recognizes the importance of the dams, and they’ve consistently supported our efforts. 

As I was finishing this column up, I got some great news from FSA’s Jon Wyss. As some of you might know, a change in the 2018 Farm Bill on how State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) are classified meant Douglas County didn’t have a CRP sign-up this year. We monitored the situation closely as FSA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) worked together to find temporary funding so growers could continue to get paid for their conservation efforts. Director Wyss told me funding has been approved through next year as well. We appreciate all the work FSA and NRCS did to try to resolve this issue. Now we just need to work on a permanent fix by getting that language changed in the next farm bill.

I don’t know what the next six months will bring, but I do know they won’t look anything like they normally do. This is the beginning of our “meeting” season, with the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention and our NAWG fall and winter conferences. It has been with great disappointment that many of our meetings have been cancelled, including our traditional visits to members of Congress. To make matters a little more complicated, we are in the beginning stages of planning for the next farm bill. 

One of the most important things WAWG does is develop relationships with our elected officials and agency leaders. Once you have established that relationship and trust, you can get down to business quickly. That’s how things get done. This year, we are starting from scratch as we’ll likely be dealing with a new administration in the White House, not to mention a boatload of new state and federal legislators. It will take time to establish ourselves as a trusted, bipartisan organization, and that will all be complicated by the pandemic restrictions. Virtual meetings will help, but they just aren’t the same. If there’s an issue keeping me up at night right now, it’s this one.

We are in the process of developing a state and national strategy on how we can connect with Congress, our state legislators and all the various agencies we need to talk to when we can’t meet with them face to face. It won’t be easy, but I’m confident we’ll sort this out. We’ve got a great group of people at our back. Not only do we have a solid WAWG leadership team (Ryan Poe, Howard McDonald, Andy Juris and Jeff Shawver) and staff, but we’ve also got Nicole Berg from Benton County about to step into the president’s position at NAWG (she was also recently elected to the board of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation). Marci Green from Spokane County is serving as a national farm ambassador, and then there’s the folks at the Washington Grain Commission (WGC). Our close relationship with the WGC makes the Washington wheat industry that much stronger.

Another solid relationship we’ve developed has been with Derek Sandison, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. He’s been a huge advocate of agriculture in Washington state, and he’s made many trips with us back to D.C. It really makes an impression when you can walk into a meeting accompanied by the director of your state’s ag department. It shows how the ag industry in our state works together for the benefit of all our growers. Our federal delegation, of course, has also worked hard to protect our farmers and ranchers, and very little would be accomplished without their support. 

Most of all, I want to acknowledge our members. As a volunteer-led organization, WAWG is only as strong and effective as our members’ involvement. If you have any suggestions or need to discuss an issue, please call our office at (509) 659-0610 or email me at 

I wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.