CONNELL, Wash. — Dana Herron sees a day in the not-so-distant future when demand may exceed supply for soft white winter wheat, the Pacific Northwest’s premier wheat crop.
If Washington’s wheat industry continues to successfully market soft white wheat to new and emerging markets, showing buyers how to make a higher-quality product for less money — “which gets the attention of a businessman real quick” — farmers may not be able to keep up with demand within the next five to 10 years, Herron predicted.
“That would be wonderful,” he said. “That means we have done our job well.”
Herron has long been one to look at the big picture. He is co-owner of Tri-State Seed Co. in Connell, Wash., and a member of the Washington Grain Commission, a position he’s held for the past decade.
Herron said the commission has a “fiduciary responsibility” to spend farmers’ money wisely. They must be able to defend the organization’s spending in public, plus the return on investment, he said.
What will benefit “the long-term health of the industry?” he asked.
In recent years, the commission has worked hard to build relationships with overseas buyers.
“How do we ingratiate ourselves and our product to them?” he said. “How do we make it more attractive than the next guy’s and keep them paying a premium for the product?”
Herron worries about unanticipated events, such as volunteer genetically modified wheat plants found in fields, but said the commission was proactive in building relationships and trust.
“The relationships we’ve built with our customers paid huge dividends because they trust us now,” he said. “That’s invaluable. We could have very easily lost this entire market, and it didn’t happen.”
Herron was born on a dryland wheat farm in Kahlotus, Wash. His family moved to Connell in 1958. Herron’s father died when Herron was a college sophomore, and the farm was split between Herron, his mother and Herron’s uncle.
Herron returned home to farm with his mother for 16 years. Then his brother Chris wanted to farm, so Dana took over the small seed business they’d started on the farm to add value during “lean” years.
In 1994, Connell Grain Growers hired Dana to run their seed division. In 2005, he started Tri-State Seed with partner Craig Teel and handles marketing and sales.
Chairman Mike Miller asked Herron to remain on the commission during his tenure.
“Dana is the historical book of what’s gone on in the past, but he also probably has the most vision of what’s coming forward and what we’re facing of anybody I know, and I know a lot of people,” Miller said. “He’s got his thumb on the pulse. He knows what ag’s going to look like here for the next generation.”
Rich Koenig, director of Washington State University Extension and interim chairman of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, says Herron has advocated for long-term research with “uncertain but potentially huge” returns for wheat farmers.
He also credits Herron with building stronger relationships between the commission, the university, state Department of Agriculture and Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
“I have always appreciated his willingness to provide frank and open feedback and, at times, constructive criticisms of WSU and USDA,” Koenig said. “We do not always do things right and he has respectfully pointed out faults and areas where we need to improve. Most often, he has pointed out that we should operate with a more business-oriented approach.”
Herron expects to complete his term on the commission in December 2018. He’s also begun preparing the succession plan for the seed company, expecting to begin working part-time in 2018.
“Half-time for me is 40 hours a week,” he said.
But he won’t vanish.
“You’re gonna laugh, but I’m going to start another business,” he said. He declined to give specifics, but said it would be agriculture-related.
Occupation: Co-owner, Tri-State Seed Co. in Connell, Wash.; represents Benton, Franklin, Kittitas, Klickitat and Yakima counties on the Washington Grain Commission
Hometown: Kahlotus, Wash.
Current location: Connell, Wash.
Education: Degree in political science and agricultural economics, Washington State University
Family: Wife Valerie, daughters Karma and Keva, three grandchildren