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OWA educates, advocates for Oregon agriculture

The 40-year-old group Oregon Women for Agriculture shares ag’s story one sign at a time.

By Aliya Hall

Capital Press

Published on August 11, 2017 10:21AM

Last changed on August 14, 2017 11:30AM

The state officers for Oregon Women for agriculture are, from left, Dona Coon, past president; Tracy Duerst, treasurer; Debbie Crocker, president; Helle Ruddenklau, vice president; Mary Hood, second vice president; Emily Duerst, secretary; and Jessica Hanna, corresponding secretary. OWA is a multi-generational association that educates the public about agriculture.

Courtesy of Oregon Women for Agriculture

The state officers for Oregon Women for agriculture are, from left, Dona Coon, past president; Tracy Duerst, treasurer; Debbie Crocker, president; Helle Ruddenklau, vice president; Mary Hood, second vice president; Emily Duerst, secretary; and Jessica Hanna, corresponding secretary. OWA is a multi-generational association that educates the public about agriculture.

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Signs along major Oregon roads and highways identify crops that are grown in the fields. The concept of the idea came in the 1970s from an original Oregon Women for Agriculture member, Pat Roberts.

Aliya Hall/Capital Press

Signs along major Oregon roads and highways identify crops that are grown in the fields. The concept of the idea came in the 1970s from an original Oregon Women for Agriculture member, Pat Roberts.

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Along most of the interstates, highways and major roads that bisect Oregon’s farmland, signs have sprouted prominently identifying the many different crops that are grown.

The organization behind the signs is Oregon Women for Agriculture, an association founded in 1969 to educate the public about the economic and ecological importance of agriculture.

“We’re about education, and people didn’t really understand what they were driving past, and it’s important to us for them to know what it was,” said Dona Coon, former OWA president and daughter-in-law of Pat Roberts, who initially created the concept of the signs.

OWA has partnered with the nonprofit Oregon Aglink, which produces the signs. OWA then distributes the signs to farmers across the state at no cost to the farmers. There are more than 200 identification signs across the state, according to Oregon Aglink’s website.

Mallory Phelan, vice president of operations at Oregon Aglink, said that the association appreciates their partnership with OWA to promote the crops farmers and ranchers are growing.

“Thanks to the two organizations, the road crop signs have vast reach all across the state and are appreciated by Oregonians as well as those passing through from other states,” she said.

The organization first formed when farm women in the Willamette Valley spoke up against the shutdown of grass seed field burning.

Now, the association focuses on all aspects of agriculture, and its mission is “Working together to communicate the story of today’s agriculture.”

“I feel it’s really important that we tell our story. Generally, most people don’t understand it,” Debbie Crocker, OWA president, said. “We educate on our side, so when we do communicate, we’re communicating the facts and the public is understanding agriculture better.”

The signs have been a visual way for OWA to do just that.

“(We’ve had) really, really good responses online and having people talk to us personally,” Coon said. “One woman was so excited to know what was going on that she sent in a $100 donation to have more signs made.”

With the influx of visitors to Oregon for the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, farmers have been calling OWA asking for more signs to display.

There are eight OWA chapters spread across the state with about 300 members.

Crocker got involved in OWA 35 years ago. She was inspired to take a leadership position after seeing what “great representatives” the past presidents were, she said.

Along with the signs and advocacy, OWA also hosts an annual fundraising auction — last year was its 30th anniversary — and has a legislative committee of volunteers to speak on behalf of agriculture at the state Capitol.

“I thought we should get back to being active in legislative stuff,” Marie Bowers, head of the legislative committee, said. “We don’t need to lead the charge, but to know what’s happening on farms, and have a position on paper. We’re all volunteers, a few passionate people who are willing to go to the Capitol.”

OWA is a multi-generational association, with many of the founding members still involved — such as Virginia Kutsch.

Although Kutsch didn’t go to the initial field burning meeting, she said enough women showed up that they decided to form an agricultural public relations organization, a direction that OWA has continued to follow.

Kutsch has seen changes over the years in technology, but she said the biggest development has been the education the younger women bring to the association.

“(They’re) keeping up with the world,” Kutsch said.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the women’s love for agriculture.

“I always felt that (OWA) is so important to us, and that comes before any of our differences,” Kutsch said. “(We) resolve differences and put the organization before any personal feelings.”

Crocker said the mix of older and younger generations is an opportunity for the association.

OWA is also made up of women from all walks of agricultural life.

“We have a place for everyone in the organization,” Bowers said. “Not just farmers, but for people who support agriculture.”



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