Washington Grain Commission CEO Tom Mick retires June 30, looks to future
By MATTHEW WEAVER
In a few weeks, Washington's grain industry will bid farewell to one of its leaders.
Tom Mick retires as CEO of the Washington Grain Commission June 30.
His career spans 42 years, including the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee as assistant administrator and administrator, eight years as director of the U.S. Wheat Associates Southeast Asia office in Singapore and two years at the U.S. Wheat headquarters in Washington, D.C. He took on leadership duties at the then-Washington Wheat Commission in 1987.
The commission and Washington State University recently honored him by naming the Tom Mick Endowed Chair in Grain Economics after him.
"It would be hard to find anyone that knows more about the world of marketing grain than Tom Mick," Dan Newhouse, Washington state director of agriculture, told the Capital Press. "He certainly has done a lot for the success Washington farmers have experienced over his tenure."
Newhouse pointed to Mick's advocacy for the grain industry, working to communicate to legislators the challenges farmers face.
"I think his no-nonsense approach, his directness, his ability to get right to the point of something is very valuable," Newhouse said. "That is an attribute that served the industry well."
Mick sat down with the Capital Press in his office at the grain commission building in Spokane. His comments have been edited for length.
Q. Why decide to retire now?
I've been in this business for 42 years, and you have to pick a time some time. I'm ready to retire, start a new phase in my life. I hate to leave the industry, this has been a dream job, but you have to make that decision.
Q. What's made it a dream job?
I started out in Colorado. I didn't know anything about the wheat industry. A friend's wife was a home economist, said they were looking for a position to fill, so I went there. The guy's personality and mine clicked, even though I didn't know anything about wheat.
I actually took the job thinking I would only be there a few months until I found a real job, and fell in love with it because of the passion of the farmers. Just the whole concept of marketing wheat, research and working with a basic staple started that feeling of a dream job.
What's made it so enjoyable is first you have a niche product, it's a small class of wheat, but it's very specific, a high-quality item. So you got to market that, which was really exciting.
Washington farmers are unique because 85 percent to 90 percent of their wheat goes into the export market, so they pay a lot of attention to what's going on around the world. They're also very astute on research due to all the different climatic conditions here. They're very sharp, they know how to ask tough questions of the researchers. You put that all together and you've got a unique group of people that are dedicated to the industry. They're so much fun to work with because they challenge you, you can't pull anything over their eyes, so you're always on your toes.
Q. What do you plan to do?
I don't have any plans. I'm sure within six months I'll be involved in different activities. My wife and I want to do a little bit of traveling, not so much internationally, because I've been doing that for 42 years, but maybe to see the United States. Do a lot more fishing, get reacquainted with lost family I haven't seen for a long time. There's a lot of things I'll be doing.
Q. Do you expect to remain connected to the industry at all?
That's up to the industry. When you talk about what I've accomplished and how I do things, you're talking about the past. The industry knows they have to look at the future, so what I can do for them is be a historian. If they ever want some background information, I'm more than happy to give it to them. But I don't want to interfere with the new person. That person, if he wants some help can call me and I'll assist, but other than that, he'll probably want to do things his way or her way.
Q. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
I think it started when I was overseas, understanding that market. It's a people business, it takes 15, 20 years to develop your contacts so they trust you. That has been very rewarding for me, that I can go into industry leaders or government officials who worked their way up, that started when I did and I can be frank with them and open, I don't have to walk on eggs. That's helped me tremendously in doing things.
Q. Do you have a biggest disappointment?
There is an insatiable demand for hard white wheat. Due to our marketing system here in the United States, we're just not able to pull it together. Hopefully it will happen in the future. When I was overseas, everybody wanted hard white wheat. We just haven't been able to pull the country together. This isn't just Washington, it's everybody. So that's been my biggest disappointment.
Q. Is there a biggest issue you foresee on the horizon for the grain industry?
I think agriculture's going to remain very strong for the next 20 years or more. There's going to be some peaks and valleys, but the trend line is going to be upward.
But there's a lot of misunderstanding about the wheat industry and its role. For example, all the excitement over (genetically modified organisms). GMOs are what's going to benefit the consumer in the future by using less pesticides and herbicides and being able to get helpful qualities into the wheat. But we have to identify what those advantages are to the consumer, not just for the farmer.
Q. Advice to the industry on how to handle that?
Just gotta keep plugging, telling your story. I hate to say it, but it's almost a virtually impossible task to educate the general public. You have to concentrate on the leaders, be they in the industry, the Legislature or Congress, and try to convince them of your story, what needs to be done.
Q. Can you talk about your approach?
I had the advantage of spending eight years in Asia, and I learned firsthand what were the problems and expectations of our customers. Many nights having a late dinner and a few beers, you'd get a clearer picture of what they were facing.
I would ask every customer, 'What are the attributes of soft white wheat and what are the problems?' That seemed to resonate very well with them. 'What can we do better to convince you soft white wheat from the Pacific Northwest is the best confectionary product or the best product for flatbreads in the Middle East?'
One thing you have to do with all of your customers, you have to be honest with them, even if it's bad news. If you see we're going to have a problem with quality, say it's sprout damage or something, you start alerting your customer immediately to that so he's prepared. That pays dividends when you have a good crop. We have a tendency in the industry to hide our faults. It's something you just can't do.
Q. How has the grain industry changed since you started with the commission?
We have to recognize we have some new competitors out there. We have the Black Sea selling cheap wheat, so how do we address those issues? We need a strong working relationship between producers and grain handlers. That's why the commission has a grain handler from country elevator operators and an exporter (on the board). We're all in this game together to maximize the producer's profits through marketing.
When I first got here there was a strained relationship between the other wheat-related organizations, and we worked very hard to overcome those.
Washington producers know how important research and marketing is and in that 25 years, we've had two assessment increases. They've passed by a substantial percentage, which is unusual. It's great to work with that mentality, of people putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak.
But I think it's the overall relationships of the entire industry. We've seen a huge consolidation of country elevator operators. They're getting bigger and bigger, and they have a major stake now in paying attention to the markets overseas, what's going on in research so they can better serve their patrons.
Q. Do you think it's better now, compared to 25 years ago or when you first got into the business?
It's changed, it's a very competitive market right now. When I got in the business, for grain specs, it was just number one soft white wheat or number two soft white wheat. In addition to that, now the customer will ask for maybe 20 to 30 different quality characteristics in his contract, that the buyer feels he needs, be it protein level, falling numbers, et cetera.
Q. What should be research priorities?
Priority should be quality, we're a very small class of wheat, soft white wheat. Until we get uniform quality among all varieties, that is very important.
We're now facing increased competition from the private companies. Even though they pay homage to quality, they put more emphasis on an increase in yields. The farmer, sad to say, is not really paid for quality, but he can't market his product unless he has quality.
Quality is a key factor, especially when we see every flour mill in the world does blending. They don't just take one class of wheat and stay with it year in and year out. They'll buy some cheaper wheat or what have you and they have to have some wheat to blend with that to bring up the quality. For soft wheats, the best quality wheat for blending is soft white.
But research covers a broad spectrum. You need the disease control, what have you.
Q. Is there anything else you'd most want to make sure appears in a story?
I was very humbled by the commission and Washington State University for naming an endowed chair for me. I haven't had tears in my eyes since my dog died when I was 13 years old, but that was an honor I'm not sure I deserve. It puts you in the same atmosphere as people like Orville Vogel and Jim Cook, and I'm definitely not in their league, but that was a great, great honor and a total surprise. I don't know how you fit that in without me sounding like I'm bragging, but I'm not bragging. I'm very humbled by it.
It's been a great ride. Very few people can say they were involved in a career for 42 years and loved every minute of it. Even the bad that happened was a great educator. It was fun.