SPOKANE — Buyers from overseas sometimes stop in to Glen Squires’ office to talk about the progress of the crop that’s critical to their business: wheat.
Are there any issues coming up? How is the crop developing? Any new varieties?
Those kinds of questions often lead to others, says Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission in Spokane.
Squires will ask in return: What are consumers thinking about? Is your company trying to use wheat in new products?
“If you can have a sit-down conversation ... and they know you’re going to work on your end and you can expect they’ll work on their end, then things get solved for the benefit of everyone who’s involved,” he said.
Squires has a knack for connecting with people. He’s able to humanize complicated issues during conversations with customers, said Ritzville, Wash., wheat farmer Mike Miller, a commission member and former chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates.
Squires deserves the reputation he’s earned, nationally and internationally, for honesty and integrity, Miller said.
“I can honestly tell you, Glen does not make any kind of decision haphazardly, especially when it comes to how it can benefit or impact Washington state farmers,” Miller said.
For Washington farmers, who this year grew nearly 2.2 million acres of wheat worth $700 million, trade is critical. About 90 percent of the crop is sold overseas to customers in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Taiwan and Yemen.
Many of those trade relationships have been developed over decades.
Glen Wittwer Squires grew up on a small farm outside Salt Lake City. His family raised fruit, hard red winter wheat, hay and triticale.
In high school, he helped start an FFA program, becoming the chapter’s vice president. One of the projects he worked on involved fundraising to build a greenhouse.
Squires married his wife, Charlotte, in 1983. They now have five children and seven grandchildren. Squires and his family like to go camping and canoeing, riding horses in the mountains and spending time together outdoors.
He received an associate degree in transportation management and went to work for a trucking company, eventually becoming operations manager.
After about a decade, he wanted to return to agriculture. He got a degree in agricultural business at Utah State University, then attended graduate school at Washington State University.
He studied under now-emeritus agricultural economics professor Ken Casavant, who focused on transportation.
“A real solid guy,” Casavant told the Capital Press. “He did the work I asked him and many times he would do more than what I asked him.”
Squires’ thesis was on Canadian competition in peas and lentils. He and Casavant testified before the U.S. International Trade Commission during an investigation into the competition.
A trade commission representative visited Squires at WSU. He sat in Squires’ office, looked around at the stacks of paper, and said, “You’ve got more information about this case right here than we do in Washington, D.C.”
The grain commission, then called the Washington Wheat Commission, later reached out to Casavant about studying Canadian feed wheat coming into the U.S.
Casavant had Squires work on the study.
Tom Mick, then CEO of the wheat commission, had wanted to bring an economist on board to work on behalf of the industry. Squires applied for the position and was hired in 1993. He became CEO in 2012, upon Mick’s retirement.
Squires never anticipated becoming CEO. He was just glad to have a job, he said, noting he had returned to school as a non-traditional student, married with children.
“It was a big leap of faith to quit my job and go back and spend five years in school, not knowing what was on the other end,” Squires said. “I feel just absolutely blessed and honored to have gotten a job in the wheat industry and work for farmers.”
Casavant believes Squires’ impact has been “substantial.” When decision-makers in Washington, D.C., have questions, they call Squires to ask how legislation might impact growers, he said.
“He’s a very effective advocate for the grain industry,” Casavant said. “He unabashedly identifies the needs of the farmer and makes them perfectly clear, and also knows how to present them in a fashion that can hopefully get responses.”
Besides keeping wheat farmers informed about all aspects of the industry, Squires most enjoys working with customers, and then seeing them buy more Pacific Northwest wheat as a result.
“That’s pretty fun, pretty cool,” he said with a grin.
It comes down to trust, he said, pointing to WSU winter wheat breeder Arron Carter’s popular presentation during the North Asia Marketing Conference in Malaysia in August. Buyers liked hearing directly from a wheat breeder, Squires said.
“Things like that bring credibility to what we’re doing and the kind of wheat we have,” he said. “We’re very open about it. Buyers appreciate the transparency. We don’t try to hide any information. If it’s too high a protein, we’re going to tell them so they can be prepared. If it’s too low, we tell them.”
Trust is important as the commission funds research, educates the public about issues like transportation, communicates with legislators, and maintains good relationships with overseas buyers.
“People can count on us for what we say we’ll do — the information we provide is credible,” Squires said. “We’re not here one day, gone the next.”
Keeping everybody on the same page is a win-win scenario for all, he added.
“Ultimately, all of those things ripple all the way back down to benefit the producer,” he said.
Wheat farmers’ biggest need is a higher price to cover their increased costs, Squires said.
Transportation providers can just increase their rates, he said, citing an example in Kansas where railroad companies use the same railcars and railroad to ship sorghum to the same points, but charge more for wheat.
“Because they can,” Squires said. “They can charge whatever they want.”
The same challenges exist in trucking and barges, Squires said.
“Everybody’s costs go up, but the farmer, he’s the price-taker,” Squires said.
Quality is the Pacific Northwest region’s biggest asset when it comes to wheat, Squires said. There are no complaints from overseas buyers, he noted.
“Invariably, what they say is, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. If you want to get it better, that’s great. But just don’t go down,’” he said.
The Washington Grain Commission works closely with buyers in overseas markets and U.S. Wheat Associates, the international marketing arm of the industry.
The commission supports national wheat interests, while protecting growers in the Pacific Northwest region and Washington.
One worry is the USDA’s Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development programs, on which the U.S. wheat industry relies to bolster overseas marketing efforts.
“I believe we need to set aside funding to be able to account for lost federal dollars, if that happens — which it could,” Squires said. “If we don’t have to use it, that’s great. But if we do, then we won’t have to miss a beat in terms of promoting.”
The grain commission also wants to make sure Washington’s farmers are on equal footing with wheat farmers from competing countries in overseas markets.
“We can’t isolate ourselves and say, ‘We’ll just go sell our wheat to Zimbabwe or something,’” Squires said. “We’ve got to have good relations with the people who are buying our wheat.”
When he’s not working for Washington wheat farmers, Squires plays a leadership role on the Grizzly District committee of Boy Scouts of America.
Kids like adventure and like to be challenged — physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, Squires said. That’s where the scouts come in.
“When they’re outdoors, they have to face different elements, they learn skills,” he said. “The whole merit badge program has all of these different opportunities for them to explore different aspects of life.”
An Eagle Scout, Squires has been involved in the organization since he was 12. This summer, he oversaw the week-long encampment of 2,800 people from all over the region for a jamboree, offering 30 to 40 merit badges and 40 different activities.
Squires sees parallels between his work with the scouts and his work advocating for farmers.
“You’ve got lots of different personalities in a scout troop, and you have to get along with everybody,” he said. “If you’re going on a 50-mile hike, everybody’s got to pull their weight and you never know what’s going to happen around the next corner. In the wheat industry, you have to keep going forward despite uncertainty, weather conditions, the things you run into.”
“He’s a leader, but he’s not afraid to listen, which is actually a pretty rare combination,” said Dana Herron, a departing commission board member and co-founder of Tri-State Seed in Connell, Wash.
Herron credits Squires with the ability to see long-term, and charting the consistent direction of the commission.
“The Washington Grain Commission has positioned itself to be the leading commission representing wheat worldwide,” Herron said. “Everyone knows it; everybody that doesn’t admit it, still knows it. He’s done that good of a job.”