With Appel retiring, two candidates vie to replace him
By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Water issues and attracting more voting members are priorities for the man insiders say could be elected as the first new president of the Washington Farm Bureau in 17 years.
Mike LaPlant, the bureau's second vice president for the last two years, said: "I don't want to change the world. I don't want to change Farm Bureau. I just want to keep going down the path we're going, I hope."
LaPlant, 57, is an Ephrata hay farmer. He was one of two candidates who filed for president before the convention began Nov. 15, but nominations from the floor could also occur.
Cheryl Ouellette, 50, a Tacoma pig farmer, is the other filed candidate.
Steve Appel, state Farm Bureau president for 17 years, is retiring this year.
The election will be Nov. 17.
LaPlant was born in Hereford, Texas, and raised in Moses Lake and Ephrata, where his father farmed. The family moved to the area to get land opened to farming by the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project.
LaPlant graduated from Ephrata High School in 1972 and has farmed since 1976. His wife, Carol, is a kindergarten teacher's aide for Ephrata School District. They have three grown children.
LaPlant is past president of the Columbia Basin Development League and on the boards of the Washington Water Resource Association and the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District. He's on the Family Farm Alliance Advisory Board and is a volunteer firefighter and fire district commissioner.
LaPlant joined the Farm Bureau in 1995 and has been on the state board since 1998. He was Grant County Farm Bureau president and chair of the state bureau's Water Advisory Committee.
"The thing with Washington Farm Bureau is you have to be all things to all people. We're so broad and diverse in types of farming and size of farms," he said.
As a farmer of irrigated land he is interested in water issues, particularly expansion of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project.
LaPlant said he adheres to the grassroots focus of Farm Bureau policy.
"That's the way it works. It won't work any other way. We need to continue that," he said.
Membership has grown from 7,000 to 41,000 over the past 17 years. A substantial amount of that is nonvoting, nonfarmer members, many of whom join to use the bureau's health insurance and access to property, casualty and life insurance.
It's important to keep the bureau's voting membership strong for ideas, clout and the vitality of the organization, LaPlant said.
The bureau, he said, is creating a legal foundation to help county Farm Bureaus deal with larger issues of statewide significance like water, property rights, wolves and wildlife.
Ouellette wants to unite all farmers so they can be more effective in getting things done for themselves in the state Legislature.
Ouellette ran for president and, failing that, second vice president of the state Farm Bureau. She said if she lost both she would run again.
Farmers are not united now, she said, noting that of 500 to 600 people attending a Nov. 11 Tilth Producers of Washington convention, only five or six were Farm Bureau members.
"We need a PR campaign by the Farm Bureau to explain to small farmers, direct marketers and women farmers that Farm Bureau is here for everyone," Ouellette said. "There is a perception that it's for big agriculture and not all. That's not the fault of Farm Bureau, but it's the image."
While many Farm Bureau members are conservative, the organization does not require that and is nonpartisan, she said. Ouellette has been active in Farm Bureau since 2002 and does not have a liberal agenda, she said. She enjoys solving problems and wants farmers to unite on issues they agree upon like water and making regulations clear and concise, she said.
She was King-Pierce Farm Bureau president for three years, ending in 2010. She said she works well with Farm Bureau officers.
"If we're going to get eastside issues passed we need people on the westside to do that," she said. "I can speak their language and get eastside issues translated into reasons for westside voters to care."
"I'm not conventional nor organic. I walk the line between the two and I work both sides of the aisle for the benefit of my farmers," she said.