WINTHROP, Wash. — When Donald “Bud” Hover strides into an annual meeting of hay or apple growers or any other commodity group, people notice him for his height, ruddy good looks and engaging smile.
He’s 6-foot-2, but stands a little taller in his cowboy boots. He puts people at ease. They quickly warm to him.
His extemporaneous speeches usually include a few facts about the Washington State Department of Agriculture he heads — that agriculture accounts for 13 percent of the state’s economy with 166,000 jobs and a $49 billion impact.
A hay grower and former Okanogan County commissioner, Hover, 59, is the kind of guy people in agriculture say they want in state government. He is someone who understands them in a state where farmers and ranchers believe the rural Republican red portion is dominated by a huge population of urban Democratic blue.
Hover was a conservative Republican county commissioner who lost a bid for a third term in 2012 by 10 votes — likely, he admits, for not being conservative enough. He serves a liberal Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, but Hover quickly emphasizes his job is nonpartisan. He notes Inslee served in the Legislature and Congress from Yakima and understands and appreciates the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy. The governor, he says, has supported the department and the safety of its inspectors, which has allowed the continued export of grain from Washington ports during difficult longshoremen’s strife.
At the recent Northwest Hay Expo in Kennewick he summed up his outlook: “I’m nothing special. Just a guy from Okanogan County who got lucky and got to be in a great job. ... For me cutting hay in my swather is the best therapy. ... I’m one of you.”
A ceiling of gray clouds hung low over the Methow Valley. Trees remained flocked in heavy frost all day.
Even though the sun wouldn’t shine on the Sunny M Ranch this mid-January day, it was time at home to savor for Hover and his wife, Tonya.
Snow blanketed their hay fields and a wood stove kept the Hovers warm inside the house with a wrap-around porch that they built in 2006. Leather furniture and fir floors are accented on one wall by the rug of a black bear Hover shot on the ranch 10 years earlier and the mount of his six-point bull elk on the other.
“It took a little while for the idea to sink in,” Tonya said of her husband’s decision last March to accept Inslee’s offer to become director of agriculture.
“I had to think about it. My dad’s right here and we have three beautiful grandchildren here and their grandmother is very special to them,” she said.
It’s difficult being away. They both love farm life and Tonya rakes hay, has pulled calves and pitches in wherever the need.
Hover was born in Seattle and raised in Issaquah. His father was a machinist for Boeing and his mother drove a school bus. His mother’s father, LeRoy Jones, gave up farming and mining in North Dakota during the Great Depression and moved his family to Zillah, Wash., where he was a farmworker. Hover’s cousins, Will and Denny Jones, own a fruit and vegetable farm there.
Hover grew up with an older sister and three younger brothers. He played sports in school and worked at a large dairy, Carnation Farms, and then at Bill Boeing’s Angus cattle ranch.
“I liked farm work, being outside,” he says.
Hover played middle linebacker at Washington State University when Dan Doornink was a running back and Jack Thompson was quarterback. Hover was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1978, finishing his bachelor’s degree in agriculture education in the off-season in 1979.
He played for the Redskins when Jack Pardee was coach, Joe Theismann was quarterback and John Riggans was running back. “I got to do something very few people get to do, playing against some of the greatest players like Roger Staubach (Dallas quarterback) and Earl Campbell (Houston running back),” Hover said.
Hover played two seasons for the Redskins and one season for the Calgary Stampeders.
Back to farming
Hover met his future wife, Tonya Holmes, in high school. They went to WSU together and married at the end of their sophomore year in 1975. She grew up in Maple Valley, south of Issaquah, but spent summers on a ranch in Winthrop her folks bought in the early 1960s.
After football, “we moved up here and bought the place from her folks,” Hover said. “It was antiquated and needed a lot of work to get up to production.”
Interest rates were high, making loans costly. Hover worked in construction with his father-in-law. Slowly farming improved as they raised Angus and hay.
In 1990, the Hovers sold part of their land for what became Sun Mountain Lodge. It left them with 100 acres but, in the deal, they began leasing 2,300 acres.
They quit raising cattle in recent years as hay prices climbed. They make three cuttings of alfalfa and orchard grass hay annually on 400 acres. Most of it goes to feed stores and dairies on the west side of the state in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties. Their son, Wes, 35, now runs the farm and the older son, Andy, owns a lumber yard.
Spring Chinook, steelhead and bull trout were listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act by the National Marine Fisheries Service in most of Washington in 1998 and 1999. Irrigation water was shut off to a lot of upper Methow Valley ranches, including the Sunny M, for two years for lack of irrigation ditch screens to protect fish.
“It was a pretty tough deal. It cost us a lot of money,” Hover recalled. He spent a lot of time in meetings and was “stunned” and “frustrated” by the attitude of some agencies and officials.
“It bothered me that meetings didn’t seem to be designed to be productive,” he said.
It gave him a desire to get involved in government. He was appointed to two salmon recovery boards, got on some county boards and in 2004 won the first of two terms as county commissioner.
“I found when serving with him that he, by-and-large, made the right decision for the good of the county,” said Jim DeTro, an Okanogan County commissioner. Hover was “congenial, outgoing and fairly dynamic” and was fiscally responsible and cared about basic values, DeTro said.
“A lot of people told me he was headed for higher ground and he was from the Methow which is a very difficult place to be,” DeTro said. “You have a huge original pioneer family base coupled with an influx of progressive liberals.”
Hover was accused of siding with liberals at times, which cost him, he said.
“He’s in a position now I feel he can do some real good for rural Washington,” he said.
Wolves were only beginning to become an issue before Hover left the commission, “but I would think he would stand with us on the wolf thing,” DeTro said. Commissioners favor local control and taking wolves off the list of endangered species.
“Whatever I can do to help protect livestock, I want to,” Hover said, “and that’s all I want to say on that.”
Picked by Inslee
After he lost his bid for a third term on the county commission, Hover wanted another public-sector position. He had completed a master’s degree in public administration at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in 2012. His 12 years on the board of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative was his basis for applying to Gov.-elect Inslee’s transition team for a spot on the Northwest Power Council.
Hover had met Inslee a few times as a commissioner while Inslee was in Congress but did not know him well. He will not say if he voted for him.
He credits some of his supporters in the Methow Valley who also supported Inslee for getting him an interview with the transition team. The team asked him to consider director of agriculture. Initially, Hover wasn’t sure but talked it over with his family and decided it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” he couldn’t pass up.
Meanwhile, Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League in Yakima, was on Inslee’s 30-member transition advisory committee and recommended the new governor retain Dan Newhouse, a farmer and former Republican legislator from Zillah, as director of agriculture.
However, Inslee chose Hover, apparently wanting “a fresh start,” Gempler said.
He commends Hover for continuing Newhouse’s effort to strengthen the department’s role in pesticide safety training which had been previously moved to the Department of Labor & Industries, upsetting farmers. Gempler said he hasn’t heard any negative comments about Hover’s first 10 months in office.
“He’s made an effort to engage with the industry,” Gempler said. “I think people are pleased with access and the knowledge he has.”