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July 20, 2006

Interview with President of Washington Farmers Union - Jim Davis

Jim Davis says there are many Democrats in Eastern Washington but their sense of being a Democrat harkens back to FDR and Maggie and Scoop.  They are typically more conservative than we are here but they are firm Democrats.  Jim is a 4th generation dry wheat farmer in Douglas County and President of the Washington Farmers Union, a smallish organization that tends to be the Democratic balance to the more powerful Farm Bureau, a strongly conservative organization.

Jim lived in Seattle for awhile, working as a stockbroker, before the call of the family farm took him back to the other side of the mountains and a life that he truly loves.  Prior to settling back into assisting on the family farm, he had a stint in the military and worked as a professional farm manager in Moses Lake.  In 2000, Davis ran against Doc Hastings in the 4th CD.  He says he has great affection for both sides of the state although he can sure see the lack of common ground on needs and values. 

He thinks that our common energy needs may bring the two sides closer.  He sees the possibility of getting larger percentages of our electricity from wind farms and fuel from ethanol and biodiesel as an opportunity for us to pull together 

After talking with Jim about the “Back to the Roots” project that I am assisting Noemie and the Institute for Washington’s Future to pull together, I realized that I wanted to understand more about eastern Washington from someone who clearly thinks well about the issues and needs of the people of that region – or rather those regions, as Jim was quick to point out.  There are a lot of different areas in eastern Washington, none of which most of us on this side know much about.  I also wanted to know about being a Democrat on that side of the mountains.

The interview is after the fold.

Q: What is it like being a Democrat in your part of eastern Washington?

JD:  There are quite a few of us Democrats over here.  But the people are conservative, even the Democrats. It was disheartening to many of us that the Democrats like FDR, Maggie and Scoop who helped build the Party in the first place, have been discounted and disregarded.  We are definitely Democrats although it can be hard given how we are painted by the more liberal Democrats in Seattle.

Q: What are you thinking of there?

JD: Unfortunately we were painted with the liberal Seattle brush when the Seattle City Council passed their, now infamous, dam- breaching resolution.  It was, in my opinion, ill advised.  It was certainly unwelcome as far as many Eastern Washington residents were concerned, including Democrats, and it was used as a political bludgeon by the GOP to hurt the Democrat's candidates in many state and federal elections, such my own race against Doc Hastings. 

Also, the noise from the other Washington, Washington D.C., does not help.  My campaign motto when I ran for Congress was "We need less partisanship and more solutions".  I think we’d do better here as Democrats if people worked together more and explored the issues and found things to agree on.  We need more dialogue.

Congress isn’t listening. I do not believe that the values issues that the GOP trots out every couple of years to stir up their base is helping to move the country forward.  Gay marriage is a state regulated issue and Congress should not let these issues distract from more urgent national concerns.  They are not concerned with the problems that the average person is concerned about.

Q: You ran against Doc Hastings in 2000.  What was that like and how did it go?

JD:  I started from scratch and raised nearly $500,000 and I ended my campaign with no debt, a feat that I and my campaign team were rightly proud of.  I didn’t take a single day off in 18 months.  It was difficult to do but I knew how to raise money from the time I’d been a stockbroker.  I spent a lot of time on phone.  Spending that money forced Hastings to do the same.

You have to make sure your name is out there.  Jay Inslee was my mentor.  He was willing to invest in me and helped me learn to campaign on the phone.

Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for Richard Wright, now that he is running against Hastings?

JD: Wright doesn’t have a rural background.  He’s clearly a good person.  I’m been encouraging him to become familiar with entire 4th CD.  Some of most educated folks in the country are in the Tri-Cities.  He is more familiar with the high-tech portion of that district than the low-tech portion.  For his sake, it would be better if he spent more time cultivating all of it. 

Q: Let’s talk with the farming.  That’s clearly important to you.  (Jim and I had talked previously about the grueling schedule during much of the summer when he is harvesting the summer wheat and then planting the winter wheat.  I was beginning to understand that his life truly revolves around the requirements of making a living on the farm.)  How did you come to be where you are?

JD:  I was born in Coulee City in Grant County.  My paternal grandparents settled here long before Washington was a state.  I loved the family farm.  It was growing and they had need of my participation.  It was a good opportunity to use my management skills.  I’m now the General Manager. 

If life was all about money, I’d have stayed there in Seattle.  You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing, though, and I really love this.  It’s not a complicated desire.

Q: You have wireless at the farm and that’s important for you.  How did that come to be?

JD:  I developed a keen sense of the lack of infrastructure in South Korea.  We had better telephone service in the Army than they had back at home.  Even when I got back to the states and lived in downtown Seattle, I couldn’t call home. 

The telephone polls in our county had been surplus and would rot out and fall over periodically.  Some of the polls were so short, they were barely taller than the snow-mobiles in winter. We had to climb the poles to fix them ourselves.  It was quite dangerous and we were afraid to service them in the summer because there was nothing to cushion our fall if the pole fell and took us with it.  So the need was clearly there.

The nature of farmers is that we will get it done.  We started a petition drive to solicit USWest to put up lines. It took a couple of years.  “Are you sure you have 18 people who want this line?” they asked incredulously.  “It’s going to cost $3500 per hookup”.  But we were desperate.  We were seeing an exit from the farming areas because we did not have the infrastructure.  People wanted to have telephones and TVs.  So, we went after it and got it done. 

That experience imbued me with a can-do attitude.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have electricity.  These are not things I take for granted.  Initiative #1, in 1931, created PUD’s.  That was key in rural areas on both sides of the mountains. 

Then from 1991-1993, I was a member of the Washington State Committee on Energy Strategy.  I pushed for the ability to connect all of WA state. This is really important for the continuity of communities.  If you are going to have folks be part of a more rural setting, it should be transparent.  They need to have electricity, telephone capacity, and now the ability to communicate by Internet. We presented to Governor Gardner. 

We are seeing the benefits of the Internet in rural areas.  In our health clinics, we have the ability with broadband to take an x-ray and email it to a specialist in a larger clinic.  The patient shouldn’t have to drive from Colville to Seattle when we can do this by broadband. 

Q:  What are the key issues for folks in eastern Washington now?

JD:  It is hard to generalize.  Benton county with the Tri-Cities is different from Yakima county right next door.  Tri-Cities.   There is a big distinction between the irrigated Columbia Basin farming area, which is about 500,000 acres, and the rural areas of Lincoln, Douglas and Grant counties, where they dry farm wheat. 

Q: How about for your part of eastern Washington?

We are really suffering from the high costs of fuel.  Our fuel costs have more than doubled in the last couple of years and it impacts the cost of fuel and the cost of chemicals and machinery.  On the other side, farmers have to take the prices they get.  I face competition with producers in Russia, the EU, Australia, and Canada.  We have to worry about the price of wheat in Romania.  Price becomes the defining value, not quality. 

The concern that most of us have is that folks in the cities don’t recognition that without farmers, American consumers can’t take food on their table for granted.  A handful of international corporations set the prices.  Is that in their best interest? 

Most countries recognize that cheap food is a security issue.  If we become dependent on foreign farmers, it is not in our national best interest. 

Q: I remember last year, I was surprised to learn from Lisa Brown when I was interviewing her that agricultural is the biggest industry in Washington State.  Agriculture is very important in this state.

JD: I was a history major in college.  Years ago, in his Cross of Gold speech, Willaim Jennings Bryan warned the nation, "burn down your cities and leave our farms, and the cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country".

It is important for us to recognize the value of farms in this whole state.  There is a huge agricultural industry on both sides of the Cascades.  There is farming and dairies in Snohomish and Skagit counties as well as across the state.

Q: What about the farm subsidy programs?  That is something I think that city folk don’t understand.

The federal farm programs began with FDR and continue today.  Over the years the program particulars have changed with the times but the goal remains the same, which is to provide support for our farmers and ranchers in order to provide food security for Americans.  The farm program design also introduced soil and water conservation to avoid another "dust bowl".  Many of the farm program benefits to farmers are designed to provide environmental protection for fragile lands that wildlife is dependent on. 

Frankly the public support for the Endangered Species Act can be a win-win for farmers, species, and the public if the conservation elements of the farm program are properly designed and administered. 

Each county has an elected Farm Service Agency County Committee of farmers that are elected by the eligible farmers in the county that serve as a governing 'civilian' body for farm program implementation and/or arbitration.  The county Committee is a local control interface for farm program administration and is unique in federal administration of federal laws and policy for any federal agency or department.  Each state has a State Committee that oversees the County Committees and the members of this committee are appointed by the Administration that is in power and they serve at its pleasure.

These farm programs are a good investment for everyone in this country because they ensure cheap, safe, and quality food.  It means the food has been grown using registered herbicides, with American laborers.  People who pay taxes and are stewards of the land care about the land.  American consumers need to understand that when wheat sells at $4/bushel, and a bushel makes 79 loaves of bed, the farmer is not getting much of the profit from that wheat.   

Consumers benefit from the high quality, safe food that is produced by American farmers.  I do not believe that it is in the national interest for Americans to become dependent on imported food any more then it is in America's interest to continue our dependence on foreign oil imports.  Most civilized countries in the world consider food to be a priority security issue.  We Americans, unfortunately, take the food that is so cheap and readily available, for granted.  Our federal farm programs are designed to provide the food security that the people of the United States depend on so that we cannot be held hostage to foreign supplies of overpriced, poor quality, unsafe foods.

Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on July 20, 2006 at 04:20 PM in Interviews | Permalink


Great interview

Posted by: jr | Jul 21, 2006 1:24:49 AM

Wow, what an important interview -- and information from Jim Davis. So many aspects of our need to better bridge the regional divide in Washington are illuminated here. Thank you for doing this!

Posted by: Noemie Maxwell | Jul 24, 2006 2:44:23 PM

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