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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow State ag director tours Baker farms

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State ag director tours Baker farms

Kate Rohner, left, informed Katy Coba that the family operation hopes to one day process and sell milk, cheese and ice cream. Coba is the new director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Kate Rohner, left, informed Katy Coba that the family operation hopes to one day process and sell milk, cheese and ice cream. Coba is the new director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Tuesday's tour of some of Baker County's best-known agricultural operations left Katy Coba with two lasting impressions.

How resourceful we are.

And how dependent we are.

Coba, director of Oregon's Department of Agriculture, toured area ranches and irrigation projects Tuesday before speaking at a Baker County Unlimited luncheon.

The resourceful part was most evident, Coba said, at the Thomas Angus Ranch, where she admired that operation's embryo transplant program.

"Now that is value-added agriculture," she said. "Applying that level of science to a traditional livestock industry — it never even crossed my mind before."

Even the dependency part wasn't a criticism. Rather, it described Coba's judgement on how carefully area producers use limited water resources. A visit with Jim Colton, who manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District, and the Lily Pumping Station drove home the great care with which water is doled out in Baker County, she said.

"You can't leave there without realizing the critical nature of water," she said. "They're making sure that we don't have another Klamath Basin-type problem here."

Since taking on the ODA's top job in February, Coba has accompanied Gov. Ted Kulongoski on two trade missions, to Japan and China. The China trip was strictly on behalf of the grass seed industry, she said, because China seeks to beautify its venues for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The SARS scare has scrubbed follow-up visits to China, she said, but a 150-member trade delegation from China is scheduled to visit Oregon this fall.

Tours of two Tokyo grocery stores taught Coba how food safety conscious Japanese shoppers are. The import-loving Japanese will eat American-grown food, she said, but only if it's high quality.

"The U.S. market is very important to them," she said, "but we'll face a high level of scrutiny" with U.S. food imports, she predicted.

Adding value to traditional products is key to succeeding in an increasingly global market, she said. That's why she's concerned about cutting Oregon State University's ag-related programs, including the Extension Service.

Coba, who grew up in Pendleton, is able to promote agriculture from a number of venues. This month, for example, she's on the cover of Main Ingredient magazine along with a Portland chef. She sits on the state tourism commission, where she touts dude ranches.

She's also learning about "culinary tourism" — people visiting a region mainly for its dining opportunities.

"It's not all five-star dining," she said. "They want to sample the local breads and cheeses. Tourists want to sample the region."

Still, Coba says, most of what her agency does is regulatory — inspecting animal feeding operations and confined animal feeding operations and going over water management plans with a fine-toothed comb.

"I don't see those regulations going away," she said. "But I'd like us to use our good handling and best practices programs to full advantage."

She saw one example of that on her trip to Japan, where a grocer featured a photograph of an Oregon blueberry grower and a framed good handling certificate, issued by ODA.

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