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Every year, landlord Dwan Jantz comes to her field
near Wilbur when the grain is being harvested.

Photo by William Bell




Leaving a mark

National positions bring spotlight to Washington wheat leaders

November 2020
By Trista Crossley

When it comes to leaving a mark in the national wheat industry, three Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) leaders are stepping up to the challenge.

Nicole Berg, vice president of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and a WAWG past president (2013/14); Michelle Hennings, WAWG executive director; and Marci Green, WAWG past president (2017/18), have all accepted assignments that are bringing national attention to Washington wheat growers. Hennings said the Washington wheat industry has become more active at the state and national levels in the last few years, and she is pleased to see women in farming have become more involved as leaders.

“Having Washington wheat growers serving on boards and in national organizations helps our state and our members. It helps our message get heard and gives us a voice and an opportunity to weigh in on national issues,” she said. “I feel that the women who are serving in these positions are great role models for leadership. They know how to deal with people, they want to educate the public, and they want to make a difference in our industry. But in order to do that, you have to be involved and be willing to go the extra mile.”

Berg: Untangling the intricacies of crop insurance

Berg, who farms in the Horse Heaven Hills, is no stranger to navigating the complex world that is crop insurance, but now she gets to experience it from the other side of the table. Last month, she was sworn in as the specialty crop representative to the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation’s (FCIC) board of directors (besides wheat, the Berg family also grows sweet corn, peas and beans). The FCIC administers the federal crop insurance program, and the board of directors’ primary responsibility is to approve any new policies, insurance plans or major modifications to existing insurance plans.

“I farm in a very dry area of the U.S., and crop insurance is a necessary tool in our toolbox in order for us to stay in business,” Berg said. “I just thought that in this position, I would be able to help farmers tell their story about how important crop insurance is as a safety net. I also want to help make sure that crop insurance remains affordable and that it continues to help cover the risk of farming because farming is getting riskier and riskier just due to the pure economics of it.”

Berg will serve a four-year term. The board generally meets five times a year in either Washington, D.C., or at the Risk Management Agency’s (RMA) office in Kansas City, although thanks to COVID-19, all meetings are currently being held virtually. As a member of the board, Berg will work with crop insurance policies for a wide range of crops, not just wheat. In general, the changes the board considers are at least a year out from being made available to growers due to how crop insurance deadlines work.

Despite keeping very busy with her official NAWG and WAWG duties—Berg is chair of WAWG’s Natural Resources Committee—she said she was excited to get more involved in the intricacies of crop insurance and to be able to have some influence over crop insurance policy. In the last farm bill, a crop insurance quality endorsement was one of the Pacific Northwest’s top priorities. Thanks in part to the work done by the wheat industry organizations of Washington, Idaho and Oregon, growers are now able to elect a quality loss option in their crop insurance policies that protects their production history in cases where a quality loss isn’t big enough to trigger an indemnity payment.

“The Pacific Northwest wheat industries have really molded together. We tend to come in with a coalition around issues, and that helps move policy, especially in D.C.,” Berg said.

Green: Ambassador to the food sector

Although Green finished up her term as WAWG president several years ago, she hasn’t stopped working hard for Washington wheat growers. Besides serving on NAWG’s budget committee and chairing the WAWG Public Information/Public Relations Committee, she’s recently become a farmer ambassador for U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action (USFRA). USFRA—formerly known as U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance—represents farmer- and rancher-led organizations committed to furthering globally sustainable agricultural systems. The focus of the organization is to create collegial interaction and proactive collaboration among the best minds in food, agriculture, science and technology, leading to environmental, social and economic sustainability, according to their website.

In September, Green participated in USFRA’s virtual Honor the Harvest Forum, where she was able to explain the grower’s role in supplying the nation’s food and fiber. Besides growers, the forum included participants from all walks of life, including, among others, 4H; the World Wildlife Fund; Microsoft; the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; major universities; commodity groups; and food production companies.

“The forum was held virtually over two weeks,” Green said. “They would have speakers and then would break everybody into small groups for break-out sessions. They did try to have at least one grower in each of the small group break-outs, so I would try to give the producer point of view in those sessions that I was in.”

Green said her role as a USFRA farmer ambassador is still evolving as the organization further defines what its role and objectives are in U.S. agriculture. Its partners cover nearly all aspects of the nation’s food sector, from the grower to the consumer, and includes university researchers, ag input companies, commodity associations, industry stakeholder groups, food production companies and even banks.

“I think the farm ambassador role is to be the voice of agriculture to this broad group,” Green said, adding that sustainability and climate smart agriculture are two of USFRA’s main focuses. “I think we have the potential to have a positive impact on climate change, and I think this might be a good avenue for us to make that point, but I also think it is important that we have a voice at the table, because with this forum, I got the impression that there were people there who thought that big equals bad and small equals good and that organic equals sustainable. I do believe that the farmer ambassadors and those of us who are producers got the point across pretty well that that’s not true. That there are all different types of agriculture, all different sizes of agriculture, but one is not better than another.”

Green used her participation in the forum to explain that when looking at climate smart agriculture and sustainability, there isn’t a one-size fits all solution for all of agriculture. She also made sure to drive one aspect of sustainability home.

“Several times, I pointed out that sustainability has to include economic sustainability. You can’t just be talking about the environment and conservation. Sustainable farming has to make business sense as well, because if you can’t maintain your business, if you change practices and then go out of business, you won’t do anybody any good,” she said.

Hennings: A channel between state leaders and NAWG

For the past year, not only has Hennings been tasked with leading the Washington state wheat industry as WAWG’s executive director—a position she’s been in for five years—she’s also been acting as the liaison between NAWG staff and the state executive leaders of NAWG’s other 19 member states.

In her role as the state executive director leader for NAWG, Hennings organizes and leads meetings between all the other state executive leaders to talk about issues that are happening in each state and to build a consensus around policy issues that should be addressed at the national level. The group meets once a month virtually and then in person (in normal times) at the NAWG fall and winter conferences and at Commodity Classic.

“The state executives are a very important part of NAWG, because we are the ones that work most closely with our board members and hear about our growers’ issues first,” Hennings said. “To have this group come together and communicate with each other can lead to very positive outcomes at the national level. We work to make sure everyone is on the same page with different issues and that each state is getting their issues addressed at the national level.”

Some of the issues the state executive group have discussed include policy decisions such as making all classes of wheat eligible for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments; addressing farm bill implementation, personnel and training issues at U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies; and helping shape NAWG’s strategic plan. Hennings feels that having a unified group and being able to provide input to NAWG has provided the national organization with a consensus from the states and helped it be more effective and efficient.

“There are times that states have issues that other states don’t,” she explained. “We’ve been working to address what NAWG’s role is in these situations. We can use this group as an avenue to introduce an issue to NAWG and to get a feeling from other states if they are having the same issue.”

While Hennings has dealt with both state and national issues since becoming WAWG’s executive director, she said she has a passion for working issues at a national level.

“To build a strategy around national policy and then get it passed is challenging,” she explained. “You are always going to have wins and losses, but when you get that win, it’s fulfilling knowing you have accomplished a goal, and you’re ready for the next challenge. Advocating at the national level for farmers is rewarding because not only have you helped your own state, but others as well. My job is never boring, and I enjoy working on behalf of the wheat industry. As a farmgirl myself, it’s in my blood.”