It took my legendary predecessor, Clayton Hannon, to notify me that I now stand as the longest serving executive director in the history of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. I thought this couldn’t possibly be correct, but as it turns out, as normal, Clayton had his facts straight.
Over the last 12 years, I have had the pleasure and honor to work side-by-side with our members and leaders to navigate both good and challenging times. This is my 150th column in Digger, and it feels like I am still just getting started.
My beginnings with OAN
I started my OAN career as your director of government relations, and I remember very well the interview process that got me the job. All I really knew about the OAN was through my time working alongside Gresham nurseryman Rod Park at the Metro regional government, where I served as chief of staff and he was a Metro councilor.
Did I have any direct state lobbying experience? Not technically. Federal? Well, I worked for the United States Senate in Bob Packwood’s office, so … yes? Did I know the issues that ag and nurseries face? Somewhat. But other than cramming and trying to cobble together legislative agendas over the previous five years, I didn’t know a lot.
I am forever grateful to Dave Van Essen, Pete Brentano, Bob Terry and Kathy LeCompte. They put me through the paces to see if I could handle the job.
Could the industry teach me the green side? Yes. My strength was my experience in the political arena, and the ability to reach across party lines to build consensus.
I openly asked the hiring committee if they wanted to be right — or build influence and be a player. I was hired.
The start of my five year run began with Kathy LeCompte calling me on my way home from signing on the dotted line. She was then the chair of the Government Relations Committee. The fact that I did not start for two weeks made no difference to Kathy (or to me).
I love this industry. I love its no-nonsense perspective and hard work. We stacked up victories, including a landmark estate tax bill (that was taken apart by state agencies who did not like it). We built a reputation of being bipartisan and solution-oriented. This would not have happened without the trust and commitment of our member leaders.
Here are the keys — then chaos
The perfect storm of the 2008 recesssion was as deep as it was long. By 2010, the industry was hit hard. One-third of Oregon nurseries ceased operations.
I became executive director in the midst of this. Good people would call me, despondent and crying over closing down. I took each and every one of those calls to heart because the pain was real.
In the face of true economic calamity, the association needed to push hard to protect the industry, regardless of whether operations were members or not.
We went out to nurseries of all sizes and made personal visits. Staying in the office in Wilsonville is not the best way to understand what is happening on the ground.
That first year, the OAN staff visited 300 of our members. Bad news does not get better with time, so the board jumped into action. During the long road to recovery, the industry endured problematic federal pest and disease regulations, a changing legislature less in touch with rural issues, and toxic immigration fight.
The OAN decided to lead at every level, both at home and nationally. It was the best decision the board ever made. We achieved a landmark compromise with developers on urban-rural reserves, successfully passed driver privileges for undocumented workers (twice), and secured the state’s first water supply bill. Our ability to wage common sense and wield influence grew over the last decade.
The shoe will drop again
In 2020, COVID became the great “time out” of our times. It will be the subject of research papers for decades to come. Through hard work, we made sure the nursery industry was deemed essential to the Oregon economy, so it could stay operational.
That wasn’t a given. The nation was a chaotic mess. Trucks were being turned around if a re-wholesaler or garden center was closed in a particular state.
Did the OAN wait for the paint to dry on COVID-driven logistics problems? No — that’s not our way.
Through the work of elite nursery association executives, we created a map of the U.S. and Canada to give growers the info to ship with confidence. Jim Simnitt, who was OAN’s president at the time, said it was the single biggest game changer that he could remember. I was proud of our members’ leadership, and it made a difference.
In 2023, the shoe is dropping with a more antagonistic Oregon Legislature, and we will do what we always do: fight for the industry.
2023 is a big year for the OAN
The OAN turns 90 this year, which is worth celebrating. We will do so at the Annual OAN Convention October 28–29 in Central Oregon.
From humble beginnings and strong vision, our industry continues to stand on the shoulders of those who came before to make it what it is today. We have achieved nearly $1.4 billion in sales, and are third largest nursery state in the country. Pound for pound, I will take Oregon’s growers and put them up against any ag sector in the world.
This year, the Farwest Show is celebrating its Golden Anniversary — that’s 50 years of commerce, networking and sharing the many gifts of nursery production in our little corner of the Pacific Northwest. Yes, trade shows are changing in a virtual world, but there is no substitute for a handshake — or for seeing plants and trees with your own eyes. Come to Oregon in August. I will buy you a beer of gratitude.
On behalf of my family who has grown up and have been blessed by the many friendships and family gatherings – thank you for letting me serve as your executive director.
Jeff Stone, OAN Executive Director
Director’s Desk from the April 2023 issue of Digger magazine | Download PDF