Retirement comes calling
After more than seven years, FSA's Judy Olson steps down
By Trista Crossley
For the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Washington state office, January brought more than just a new year. It brought a vacancy in the top spot as Judy Olson, state executive director since 2009, retired.
Olson is well known to the farmers of the Evergreen State, especially wheat farmers. Before her time at FSA, she was the Eastern Washington director for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for more than a decade. Before that, she served as president of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), and before that, she was the first female president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) in 1990/91. But even before all those titles, she was a Whitman County farm girl who wanted nothing more than to raise crops.
“Agriculture has been my whole life. I’m a fourth-generation farmer myself. Some of the oldest memories I have are walking out across the fields in February and March with my dad to see the condition of the winter wheat,” she said. “I remember jumping across erosion ditches that were part of the wheat-fallow rotation we had and hearing him talk about how bad those were. As the wheat grew bigger and we did the spring planting of crops, I could hardly wait to get home from school, change into pants and see if I could ride a tractor. Agriculture is in my blood.”
Olson’s dreams of becoming a farmer were dashed when at 17, her mother sat her down and told her that the only way she was going to be a farmer was if she married one.
“I didn’t even know any farmers that I would have wanted to marry,” Olson said, laughing. “The idea that I would have a long and full life in agriculture seemed a real distant point (at that time). If anybody had told me then that I would be president of WAWG, NAWG or a state executive director, I would have never believed them. This has been a very full, very exciting career that I’ve enjoyed very much.”
With a successful career behind her and a son who has taken over the family’s farm near Garfield, Wash., Olson said she plans to put some miles on her RV with her husband, Rich, and spend as much time as she can with her nine grandchildren. While she won’t miss her 75-mile daily commute to Spokane, Olson said she will miss her staff in an office where the work was never the same two days in a row.
Olson’s retirement comes just as work begins in earnest on the 2018 Farm Bill. During her time with FSA, Olson helped implement two farm bills, including the 2014 Farm Bill that made drastic changes to FSA programs and how they operated.
“That was a major education effort, not only for our own staff, but to have our staff educated well enough to go out and explain the programs to every producer,” she said. Another highlight of her FSA tenure was overcoming staffing issues resulting from budget reductions that coincided with a wave of retirement-ready employees that began around 2012. In order to meet those budget cuts, FSA implemented a voluntary retirement initiative. In Washington state, Olson estimated that nearly 50 percent of her employees were eligible for the initiative, and the departures left staffing gaps that have taken years to fill.
“We took a permanent staffing reduction of 12 percent, and we’ll never be back to the staffing levels we had on the day I was appointed unless Congress decides differently,” Olson said, adding that the state office is projecting to have all of their long-term vacancies filled by this summer, barring any unexpected retirements. “It has taken and is taking time to recruit, hire and train people. We have a very high percent of new and newer employees. That is both encouraging and exciting, but it is a heavy lift for our experienced staff. The hardest thing about that situation is it was just something that was unforeseen.”
When Olson accepted the position of state executive director, she said she knew very little about the job. Her goals were to insure that FSA provided the best service to farmers and ranchers across the state as was possible and to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to participate in the agency’s programs. And in a state that grows more than 300 commodities, second only in diversity to California, there’s been a lot of ground to cover, especially with the latest farm bill that included programs for previously uninsured crops.
“We have new loan products for small fruit and vegetable farmers that are particularly appealing to them. That’s a whole new segment from our traditional customers. Our job is to reach out to those folks, and let them know what we have, and how we can help them. Some of them have never even heard of us,” she said.
Some of the other changes Olson has seen in her tenure has been the establishment of permanent disaster programs, increases in micro loans and the expansion of farm storage facility loans, which used to be used only for grain bins but has been broadened to include all kinds of storage and processing facilities.
The state executive director’s job has taken Olson to just about every corner of the state and taught her about all the commodities grown here, from berries to mushrooms to small dairies that are making specialty cheeses.
“I’m always excited to visit Yakima and the Columbia Basin and see the diversity of irrigated crops we grow. On the west side (of the state) I got to see how raspberries are processed and marketed. I also got to visit a small farm that grows mushrooms and sells them to restaurants. That was just fascinating. I never dreamed it was so complicated to do that. We have such a variety of fruits and vegetables in this state that it is, for someone who likes to eat, a fantastic opportunity. Anytime I had an opportunity to do a farm or industry tour, it made my husband jealous.”
Olson pointed out that Washington’s crop diversity and unique geography has presented some challenges to her staff, from the large distances between offices on the east side, to the need to take into consideration ferry schedules on the west side. Washington also has to deal with a number of endangered species, specifically salmon, that can impact ag.
“A lot of states don’t have that issue, and some don’t even have endangered species that affect agriculture. As any wheat farmer or grain grower can tell you, it does have an impact,” she said.
As of press time, Olson’s replacement has yet to be named. With a new administration in Washington, D.C., she expects it may take some time, as positions in the nation’s capital have to be filled before attention is turned to the state level.