Ag agency director reflects on decade
Despite criticism and controversies, Coba worked to build consensus
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- It was late 2002 and newly elected Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski was forming his first administration.
Kulongoski asked Katy Coba, then interim director of the Oregon Department of Economic and Community Development, to lead the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Coba told Kulongoski she was flattered by the offer, but said no thanks.
Kulongoski's chief of staff, Peter Bragdon, however, was persistent.
"Peter talked to me multiple times about being the director of agriculture," Coba said. "Finally I agreed to do it, and, in hindsight, I am glad he was so persistent.
"This is clearly the best place, and has been the best place for me," Coba said.
Coba today is nearing her 10-year anniversary as director of the state Department of Agriculture. Her stint is the third longest consecutive tenure in the history of the department, and just two years shy of the longest tenure.
Her tenure has not been without controversy. She faced considerable criticism recently for expanding the area where canola can be grown in the Willamette Valley.
In retrospect, she said it's a decision she would have gone about differently. She would have foregone an attempt to adopt a temporary rule -- an avenue the department took to allow planting canola this fall -- and advanced the policy change under a permanent rule, which includes opportunities for public comment.
Still, those who have worked with Coba over the years praised her for being even-handed, thorough in her analysis of issues, and for her ability to develop consensus on difficult issues.
"She has undoubtedly been one of the most accepted directors of the Department of Agriculture in recent times, and her current popularity is a result of the outstanding job she's done," said Bob Levy, a former chair of the State Board of Agriculture and a Hermiston-area farmer.
"She has brought to the job a diversity of experience both political and agricultural that have allowed her to develop consensus among a broad variety of groups that have faced difficult challenges over the past 10 years," Levy said.
Coba, 50, pulls from her experiences in market development and farming to help steer a department that both promotes and regulates agriculture. The dual responsibilities make ODA nearly unique among Oregon agencies: Only the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries and the ODA do both.
Prior to her experiences at ODA, Coba worked in Gov. John Kitzhaber's first administration as an economic development and international trade policy adviser, and as interim director of Economic Development, which is now Business Oregon. She also served as special assistant to the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture from 1989 to 1995.
Those experiences helped shape her understanding of market development, she said.
It was her youth spent on an Eastern Oregon wheat ranch where she learned about agriculture.
The experience, she said, gave her a passion for agriculture that is hard to duplicate for someone not raised on a farm.
"I saw and experienced firsthand how difficult it is to be a farmer," Coba said. "I have a passion and a love for the land, and I think I have a connection with agriculture in this state."
Promoting Oregon agriculture to this day is the favorite part of her job.
Still, Coba has not shied from making tough decisions during her tenure, including eliminating positions at the department in response to hefty budget cuts and levying fines on farmers for pesticide use infractions.
Regulating farm activity is not a part of her job she likes. But, she said, making the tough calls has become easier over time.
"From the standpoint of having done it, you learn a better way of making those decisions," she said. "It doesn't mean I like it any better than I did when I started the job. It would be nice if we could spend less time on the regulatory side, and more time on promotion and economic development."
Reflecting on her 10 years with the department, Coba said issues have become more complex.
One thing that hasn't changed, she said, is the broad diversity of Oregon agriculture.
"(The broad diversity) clearly is a strength for Oregon agriculture," she said. "But it creates some challenges that maybe a Midwestern state doesn't have.
"There is no way that agriculture in this state will always be unified around every issue," Coba said.
"But I give credit to the industry for being as unified as they are," she said. "And I give credit to the industry for recognizing that where they are not on the same page, they at least respect each others' viewpoints."
Coba, who started as ODA director Feb. 3, 2003, said she never planned to stay with the department for any set period of time.
"I think the reason I am still here is I still feel that what I am doing, and what the department is doing, is effective," Coba said.
Asked what advice she would give the next director, Coba said:
"I would say, have a passion for agriculture.
"You've got to be honest and open and transparent.
"You have to be able to make the tough decisions.
"Don't come into this job thinking everyone is going to like you, because it is just not going to happen. But try to be fair and objective and gather information and really try to make the right decisions.
"Will you get criticized? Yes, you will. That just comes with the territory.
"Have a lot of patience.
"And keep a smile on your face, and keep a sense of humor."
Asked if she planned to leave the department any time soon, Coba said:
"Not unless someone out there has a different plan for me than I have for me.
"No, I'm not going anywhere right now."