RICHLAND, Wash. — Every time Karen Sowers drives to Pullman from the Tri-Cities and sees the same fields planted in wheat, she wishes she could talk to the farmers about the benefits of raising canola.
An Washington State University Extension and outreach specialist in oilseeds, Sowers wants to make canola a staple for growers, not something they just think about when wheat prices are down.
Using canola as a possible rotation crop helps farmers deal with residual herbicides, weeds, improve water filtration and breaks up disease cycles, she said.
Sowers is also leading the charge to launch the Pacific Northwest Canola Association.
Nominations for producer-members on the board of directors closed Oct. 27. A ballot with all nominees will be mailed to farmers in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana. Once producer-members are elected, the association will elect officers and communicate with the rest of the industry about membership, monetary support and possible board seats.
Sowers hopes to make the association a reality soon.
“I’d love to see it happen by the end of the year and then continue to grow,” she said. “It’s a voice at the local, state, national and regional level.”
The association will be able to lobby for important things such as herbicide regulations or crop insurance, and seek more research funding, Sowers said.
Sowers’ father was a plant pathologist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Manhattan, Kan. She worked on a wheat and sorghum farm her junior year in high school.
She knew from an early age she wanted to work with farmers.
“They’re down-to-earth people,” she said. “It sounds cliche, but they’re working for the rest of us. Just good people.”
Sowers moved to Washington 10 years ago. Bill Pan, her major professor at WSU, called her about the opportunity to join the Washington Oilseed Cropping Systems project.
Sowers remembered seeing some yellow fields in 1990, but had very little experience with canola or other oilseeds.
“The learning curve was steep, and does not ever end, but that’s also a very neat thing about working with farmers,” she said. “There’s not a time I go and visit with a farmer where I don’t learn something from them. I’m hoping it goes both ways.”
“People trust her,” said Ralston, Wash., farmer Curtis Hennings. “She’s sharp, friendly and extremely helpful.”
Hennings was involved in a previous canola association, but says the newest effort will be more active and include an executive director. An association tends to have more clout when meeting with legislators and lawmakers, Hennings said.
Anna Scharf, a U.S. Canola Association board member and president of the Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association, said Sowers has been “instrumental” in revitalizing the association. Willamette Valley growers rely on Sowers’ work, she said.
“She’s always looking for opportunities for how we can make canola bigger, better, stronger, faster and economically, where’s the value for the farmers in the growth of the crop,” Scharf said.
Sowers believes depressed wheat markets and research and education efforts have meant more canola acres.
She points to processing plants in Warden, Wash., and Rickreall, Ore., and the recent groundbreaking for a new facility in Great Falls, Mont., as positive signs. The companies are set up for more acres than currently exist, she said.
“The infrastructure is here, we’re not doing a chicken before the egg thing,” she said, calling demand “insatiable.”
“I think canola is here to stay,” she said.
Title: Extension and outreach specialist in oilseeds, Washington State University
Hometown: Manhattan, Kan.
Current location: Richland, Wash.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in agronomy, soil and water conservation at Kansas State University; master’s degree in soil science, Washington State University
Family: Married, one daughter, one son