'Catalyst' anticipates changes
Ostlund is part facilitator, part leader and all administrator
By MITCH LIES
SALEM, Ore. -- A summer job on a farm north of Salem some 30 years ago meant little more than a paycheck to Bryan Ostlund, then a high school student looking for some extra cash. It turned out to be valuable experience.
Ostlund said working on that farm as a youth gave him a unique perspective he still uses.
"At the time, I thought it would be worthless," he said. "It turned out to be pretty valuable. I gained an appreciation for producers -- what they go through, the challenges, what it means to move hand line all day long in 90-degree weather."
Ostlund is one of the most influential figures in Oregon agriculture today, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba.
In the seed industry, Ostlund has helped establish a new market for Oregon annual ryegrass seed.
In Christmas trees, where Ostlund serves as executive director of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, he has been an integral player in keeping trees flowing across the border to the lucrative Mexican market.
In blueberries, Ostlund has helped raise the profile of the industry, according to Oregon blueberry commissioner Doug Krahmer.
"Bryan is one of the shining stars in our industry in terms of his creativity and the breadth of the sectors he works with," Coba said. "Often times, when you're working with farmers, you need a catalyst, and Bryan is that catalyst."
"He is one of the best administrators I have ever worked with," said Jim Heater, owner of Silver Mountain Christmas Tree Farm. "He is very astute. He has his ears open to anything that can affect the industry. And he's not afraid to jump into any problems that arise."
A commission administrator, Ostlund said, must be equal parts facilitator and innovator.
Given that he heads six commissions, he is especially qualified to comment on the issue.
"Our goal is to make sure the inner workings of commissions takes place very quietly and seamlessly," he said. "That allows the commissioners to stay with the bigger issues of where are we headed with our markets, what are we doing with research, where should we place our time and emphasis.
"Through it all, you've got to constantly be moving and bringing new projects to the table.
"You've got to reach out and get those marketing grants for the Christmas tree industry. You've got to look at energy issues with the mint industry.
"You've got to look at fine-turf grants, and ask yourself, 'How do I reinvent the fine-turf industry?'
"It's not incumbent on me to do it by myself. But you've got to take the leadership," he said. "And part of that is understanding that the model that we had before isn't the model that fits today."
In his 30-plus years in agriculture, Ostlund has seen markets rise and fall. Even the most secure markets can be vulnerable, he said.
"We saw ryegrass movement drop more than 100 million pounds in one year," he said. "I didn't think that was possible. I would have guessed that our markets were so diverse, so well entrenched after so many years, after decade after decade, that it would have lent a larger degree of stability.
"But that proved not to be the case," he said.
"I think it was a real education for everybody of how closely tied the grass seed industry is to discretionary spending; not just to the U.S. but to the world -- the golf markets, home markets, municipal budgets," he said.
"We know we now have to work more on the environmental side of things. The message is no longer should I use perennial ryegrass or tall fescue. The message is addressing, 'Should I use anything?'" Ostlund said.
One of Ostlund's crowning achievements is his work to develop and expand sales of annual ryegrass to Midwest corn and soybean growers for use as a winter overseeding crop.
Sales of annual ryegrass seed to the Midwest have increased from a few hundred pounds when the market was first approached in 2003, to an estimated 10 million to 15 million pounds today.
The sales have been vital in today's volatile grass seed markets.
"He put the pieces together and coordinated things," said George Pugh, an annual ryegrass seed grower of Shedd, Ore. "He went out and found the cooperators we work with to get that whole thing going."
In part because of the program, annual ryegrass prices appear to be recovering ahead of other grass seed species.
"Part of our job here is to move new projects forward," he said. "And each group I work with has meaningful projects that are very important to producers.
"And they aren't all marketing oriented," he said. "There are many research projects. There are food safety issues. There are a variety of issues: How do we address the pinch on labor?
"Agriculture in the (Willamette) Valley has changed a lot," he said. "With the rapid acceleration of building in the 1980s and '90s, we have a lot of neighbors we didn't have before. And there is a changing face of the political nature in Oregon.
"We have to come to terms with things like pressure on field burning, pressure on dust and water and pesticide restrictions," he said. "And we do that through partnerships."
"We (Ostlund and his wife, Lisa Ostlund) are very lucky to work with the people we work with," Ostlund said. "We work with people all over the state -- growers primarily -- and they are the greatest people on the planet.
"They are the salt of the earth."
Position: Administrator of six Oregon commodity commissions: Highland Bentgrass; Ryegrass Growers Seed; Tall Fescue; Fine Fescue; Mint; Blueberry. Executive director Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association and Oregon Essential Oil Growers League.
Family: Wife, Lisa. One daughter, 17.
Education: Bachelor of science in business, Southern Oregon University
Quote: "The only constant I see right now is change."