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William Wymer (11) checks out the 2019 wheat crop at Kloster Farm in Lincoln County. The land is leased and farmed by John Wagner and his son, Jordan Wagner.
Photo by Diana Kloster

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POLICY

Meet the new guy

Jon Wyss takes over as FSA state executive director

August/September 2019
By Trista Crossley


The new Washington state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) brings to the job a background as diverse as the crops his agency will be serving.

In June, FSA announced that Jon Wyss had been selected to replace Brian Dansel as head of the state’s office. Previous to the appointment, Wyss had spent more than a decade working as an analyst for his wife’s family farm, Gebbers Farms, in Brewster, Wash. Before that, he served as chief deputy assessor for Spokane County, was a state senator for Washington’s 6th Legislative District and worked for the U.S. Trustee Program, which oversees the administration of bankruptcy cases across the nation.

Dansel, himself a former state legislator, had moved into a regional FSA position.

“I’ve been on both sides of the equation, from the agriculture side to the political side,” Wyss explained. “For the last 14 years, I’ve worked with my wife in a 10x10 office, with her right behind me, for her family company. We grow apples, cherries, pears, cattle, timber. We have some CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) ground and grassland ground. Any of the programs that are here (at FSA), her family was involved in. I did a lot of research on different farm programs and farm structures. I also did a lot of the government work dealing with city council, county commissioners and state and federal legislators because we had issues from trade to general agriculture to labor.”

Wyss also has experience dealing with FSA from the standpoint of farmers and ranchers in crisis. He led the recovery effort for the 2014 Carlton Complex fire, the largest fire in state history. The fire destroyed more than 350 homes in Okanogan County, causing an estimated $98 million in damages. Wyss said thousands of miles of fencing burned, not to mention extensive damage to irrigation equipment, orchards and livestock. All kinds of FSA and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) contracts also burned. That recovery effort was just getting going when things heated up again in 2015.

“I’m on an airplane to Chicago because I served on the U.S. Apple Association board. I get this text message that says that Okanogan County is on fire again,” he said. “And it blew up. It didn’t just hit Okanogan County, it was Okanogan, Chelan, Douglas, Ferry and Stevens counties. They were all burning. They were like we need you guys with the recovery group to lead. That then brought in a whole new dynamic. Instead of being in just one county, we were in five counties and three reservations.”

The recovery team quickly became well versed in using USDA’s disaster programs to help farmers and ranchers recover. Besides the national apple board, Wyss has also served on the board of USA Farmers and on the American Farm Bureau’s labor committee. Those experiences, working with FSA and trying to help farmers and ranchers in his various positions, and before that, helping people through the bankruptcy process, were instrumental in Wyss’s decision to apply for the state FSA position.

“I was very fortunate that the family I worked for allowed me to be in those roles because we were working to help everyone. It was magnificent. This job came up, and I thought, you know, I can utilize all of these things I have learned over my career. I’ve been working since I was 18, so 30 years of working, to help people. I can use those skills, come in and the policies are already there, and I thought, what a better way to do it than this? And it has been a true, amazing honor to be able to be in this position and to have a somewhat small role in helping the future of our farmers,” he explained.

Because of his prior experience, Wyss has been able to step into the state executive role fairly quickly. He admits, however, he is still learning all the acronyms that USDA uses. He has set a goal to visit every state FSA office by the end of August and meet with the county committees. Another goal Wyss has set for himself and the state office is to continue to have the office operate smoothly through his transition, as it has through the previous directors.

“Even as the directors have changed, the workload has continued without a hitch,” he said. “So that’s goal No.1. Goal No. 2 is to carry out the goals implemented in the farm bill. There is going to be a lot of new things in there, so there’s going to be a lot of education to the producers and growers and making sure they get that information in a timely manner.”

When asked how farm bill implementation was going, Wyss laughed and said he hadn’t been at the agency long enough to know, that he was still learning the ropes. Both he and the state staff have been participating in farm bill training, and he hoped to have a better perspective in August.

“This agency is amazing. All of the pieces that it is in and all of the places it is in,” he said. The FSA office is also in the midst of a major move. The state FSA, NRCS and Risk Management Agency are consolidating their office spaces into one space in Spokane Valley.

Looking forward, Wyss said staff retention is something he is concerned about, adding that currently, there appears to be appropriate staffing in place to meet customers’ needs.

“Just like any business, your employees are your best asset, and we want to make sure that asset is utilized to the fullest extent and managed appropriately with the dollars that we get and that customers are serviced by that,” he said. “A lot of folks have put in a lot of years of service, and we are grateful for their years of service, but if they were to leave, you want to make sure that whoever replaces them can perform.”

While Wyss doesn’t have a lot of experience with the wheat industry, he said he is ready to learn and will be relying on wheat producers to keep him informed of any issues they have concerning FSA programs.

“I’m eternally grateful to have the opportunity to serve the farmers of this state and the people who are out there doing the work to feed the nation,” he said. “We produce the best, highest quality food in the world. If you think about it, when you open your refrigerator, there’s dairy. There’s fruit. There’s beef. We are literally growing the refrigerator to the world in this state. I’ve been honored with an appointment to be able to help those people continue that task. What greater thing could you be blessed with in the short time you have to do this job than to say, ‘I helped continue Washington’s agriculture production to be the refrigerator to the world.’ That’s an awesome responsibility.”