Wheat leader keeps the buyer in mind

Mitch Lies/Capital Press U.S. Wheat Associates Vice President John Oades has played a key role in advancing Northwest wheat sales in Asia.

Oades seeks ways to protect growers' market share


Capital Press

PORTLAND -- In 1990, John Oades, then U.S. Wheat Associates West Coast director, called a meeting in Portland with the heads of nine state wheat commissions.

Oades believed the industry needed to lower its dockage specifications. He got the ball rolling by talking to producers.

"Our business was at risk because Canadians and Australians both routinely provided significantly cleaner wheat," Oades said. "When your two primary quality competitors are doing it, at some point, you either have to do it or it begins to erode your market share."

Oades secured a commitment from the wheat commissions, convinced Japanese and Taiwanese buyers to agree to a scheduled phase-down of the specifications and later got exporters on board.

The dockage specifications dropped over time from an average of 1 percent to 0.3 percent: It's a specification used today when quoting prices from Portland.

"Now each of the four management teams that run elevators here has at least one elevator with a cleaner in it," Oades said.

The move, many believe, helped keep intact U.S. wheat sales to Asia. Oades characterized it as a watershed moment in his 26-year career as West Coast director of U.S. Wheat Associates .

Oades, 63, retired earlier this year as director but continues to work part time for the associates. He was replaced by Steve Wirsching.

Other watershed moments, he said, were less noticeable, but perhaps equally as important. One involved connecting U.S. wheat breeders with overseas millers and bakers.

The idea, he said, was to help breeders better understand the needs of the end user.

"We decided we needed input from our overseas customers on what quality they want, so we started a thing called Overseas Varietal Analysis program to get input from overseas customers by evaluating varieties within classes.

"We're increasingly in a very competitive world market where our cost of production is typically above much of our competition," Oades said. "So we must deliver a superior value of wheat."

The key to getting breeders on board, Oades said, was to set "quality targets," not demands.

"Prior to that, everyone had their own vision of what the quality of wheat ought to be within a class," he said.

Born and raised on a wheat farm in The Dalles, Ore., Oades understands the growing side of wheat and the selling side. His connection to producers, he said, is vital in helping him understand how far he can go to help end users meet their needs.

"It is a fine line," he said. "My salary is 100 percent paid by the producers and having come out of the producer background, I'm pretty doggone loyal to that."

Tammy Dennee, executive director of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said Oades has been invaluable in linking producer to end-user.

"His contributions are numerous," she said. "He helped growers understand the value in segregating for quality, which was a painful discussion in its infancy."

Oades said in reality most of the ideas he pushes aren't original. His main asset, he said, is his ability to recognize a good idea when he hears it.

"I'm a great stealer of ideas," he said.

"I see the need, and as these things begin to formulate in your mind, you think, 'Well, we can maybe do this,'" he said. "Then you start talking to other people and say, 'Can we make these things move forward?'"

John Oades

Age: 63

Position: Vice president, U.S. Wheat Associates

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in agricultural education from Oregon State University; doctorate in agricultural education from Colorado State University

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