Rooted to Eastern Washington: WSDA head says he is fan of Columbia Basin
Derek Sandison is not your everyday bureaucrat. Nope. He knows what it’s like.
“I remember it was a lot of work,” he wrote in an email from Olympia.
It, in this case, was the vineyard Sandison owned and ran in Ellensburg almost 20 years ago. Planting, training, trellising – Sandison has done it.
“Ultimately, it got too difficult to hold a full-time job and keep my vineyard,” said Sandison, who followed his day job all the way to the state capital, where he heads the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Sandison, FCAD’s 2016 Honorary Farmer of the Year, said he still holds a soft spot for Central Washington and, in particular, the Columbia Basin, of which he declares himself a fan.
“As a kid, we used to go there from Port Angeles for vacations and it made a huge impression on me, especially the tremendous production and infrastructure there,” he wrote in an email, adding “When I visit now, I feel a lot of pride and a great deal of gratitude that I was able to make a significant contribution to the expansion of the Columbia Basin Project through my work on the Odessa Groundwater Replacement project.”
The former head of the state’s Department of Ecology, Sandison has a unique perspective on land issues in this state, from both a conservation standpoint and a farming standpoint.
As head of the Office of Columbia River at Ecology, the focus was on developing water supplies, Sandison wrote. Now at WSDA, “our support goes beyond water. Of course, water is vitally important to agriculture and I am still a passionate advocate for assuring adequate water supplies,” he added. “Due to the broad sweep of issues here, we don’t have the luxury of focusing on just one aspect of the industry.”
His position as the leader of the state’s department of agriculture allows him to witness the sometimes contentious relationship between the state and family farms.
“We recognize that it can be challenging for family farms,” he wrote. “At WSDA we advocate for farmers, focusing on understanding the regulatory issues facing them and helping to identify solutions.”
Nevertheless, Sandison relishes the work that takes him to ag country a good 45,000 miles per year.
“It does consume my thoughts,” he wrote. “The health and viability of the industry, including the food processors. That’s why I fought so hard to secure additional water from the Columbia River for the Columbia Basin Project.”
At the same time, even for a veteran such as himself, the job came with a bit of a learning curve.
“While I was already pretty familiar with many facets of agriculture, some issues have been new to me,” he wrote.
One such issue was how to control invasive pests like the apple maggot and the gypsy moth, he wrote. Another such issue was the constant back-and-forth of trade relations.
“Working with the International Marketing Program, and going on overseas trade missions was an eye-opening for realizing how complex, fragile and important trade relations are” for the state and its ag industry, he added.
Such extensive traveling has helped him spread the gospel of Washington Ag in a broad range of forums, almost as broad as the number of crops grown in the Evergreen State. By his count, Washington farmers produce around 300 crops.
“Yes, most know us for our apples, but Washington’s top crops include wheat, potatoes, hay, cherries, grapes, and hops. We produce more mint than any other state and our hops supply most of the country. But no matter what the crop is, Washington agriculture products are known literally around the world for their premium quality.”
That reputation includes, of course, wines, a small point of pride for the former vintner.
“The attributes in our state such as location, latitude and climate produce very high quality grapes that make wines with great character,” he wrote. “Washington ranks second in the nation for premium wine production and 40 percent of the grapes were planted in the last 10 years.”
Asked if the winery boom was something he foresaw during his days as a winemaker, his answer leaves no room for doubt.
“Absolutely!” he wrote. “We have the right conditions to produce world-class wines.”
Sandison, along with the 2016 Farm Family of the Year, will be honored at noon on the FCAD main stage.
— By Sebastian Moraga, QVPR