SALEM — For the last 20 years, Gary McAnich has served as the regulatory gatekeeper for one of Oregon's top agricultural sectors.
A longtime program manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, McAnich oversees the licensing and inspection of nurseries and greenhouses across the state.
His staff works to ensure that products are not spreading dangerous pests or diseases, such as sap-sucking aphids, wood-boring beetles or the calamitous plant infection known as sudden oak death.
McAnich, 62, announced he is retiring from ODA effective June 30. A search is underway at the agency to find his replacement.
During his tenure, McAnich said the number of licensed nursery growers has actually declined by roughly half, in part due to the 2008 Great Recession. Oregon currently has 1,817 licensed nursery dealers, 812 nursery growers, 281 greenhouse growers and 383 Christmas tree growers.
Yet as the industry has contracted, the value of the products has rocketed to new heights.
Nursery and greenhouse production in Oregon was valued at over $996 million in 2018 — more than any other agricultural commodity by a wide margin, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. In second place was cattle and calves, at just over $652 million.
In addition to nurseries, McAnich also manages the Christmas tree program for ODA and, more recently, the state's industrial hemp program. His departure comes at a time when hemp is gaining traction among growers, as licensed acreage in Oregon increased more than 400% following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.
McAnich estimates about 85% of Oregon's nursery stock is shipped and sold out of state. That means much of his job is focused on certifying that plants are safe and healthy for export.
"Going to other states is a little easier than going to foreign countries," McAnich said. "Foreign countries, depending on the country, can be fairly complicated on the type of inspections and type of testing we have to do before we can certify the shipments."
Perhaps the most stunning development of his tenure was the initial discovery of sudden oak death in a nursery east of Portland in 2003. Since then, the pernicious, tree-killing disease has loomed increasingly large over nursery growers.
"That was a very big deal for our program," McAnich said. "It had a huge regulatory impact on the movement of a lot of plant material that's grown here in Oregon."
Sudden oak death is caused by the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, spreading via airborne and waterborne spores. It was thought to be contained in California before arriving in southwest Oregon forests in 2001.
With the arrival of sudden oak death, McAnich said the USDA began implementing a federal quarantine to prevent spreading the disease to other states and countries. If inspectors find sudden oak death in a nursery, the plants are immediately destroyed by burying or burning.
In addition, according to the ODA website, the nursery is quarantined, the extent of the infection is determined, all host material shipped or received at the nursery during the last six months is traced and inspected and the nursery is surveyed for the next three years.
Initially, the effects were chilling, McAnich said. Not only did growers lose the value of the plants, but their reputation with customers was also at risk. A lot of nurseries also cut back on growing popular hosts of the disease, including rhododendrons and camellias.
"It put them on edge," McAnich said. "They didn't want to be that nursery that spread the disease to some other state."
Currently, 14 licensed nurseries have tested positive for sudden oak death within the last three years. McAnich said the facilities are inspected twice a year, with ODA collecting several thousand samples for additional testing.
Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, praised McAnich and his program for working face-to-face with growers on issues like sudden oak death to keep markets open.
"We don't fear inspectors, because we view them as a partner," Stone said. "Gary has been my first stop on anything that makes me nervous, sweat and lose sleep at night."
In early 2019, McAnich's program expanded to licensing and testing industrial hemp. By law, hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the component in cannabis that gets users high. ODA conducts both pre-harvest and post-harvest tests of hemp to ensure THC does not exceed that threshold.
The rapid rise of hemp has required ODA to hire new staff dedicated to the crop, McAnich said.
"It got so big so fast, it was kind of scary," he said.
Heading into retirement, McAnich said he is going to miss working with the "smart, innovative" growers in Oregon.
"A lot of other states look toward what's happening here to guide their industries," he said.
Stone, with the nurseries association, said whoever replaces McAnich will have big shoes to fill.
"Gary has served the state and ODA so well," Stone said. "He is going to be sorely missed."