Cookson's Farewell: "I thought farming was about farming."

I haven't met Cookson Beecher, but when she left her position with the Capital Press, her farewell letter landed in my box. (Power of the web strikes again!)

Cookson is an important advocate for local and sustainable agriculture and in her poignant farewell, she looks back on a her career as an agricultural reporter. It resonated with me, and she has graciously allowed me to share it with you.


A fond farewell of gratitude

From Cookson Beecher

As many of you already know, I have left Capital Press to pursue other endeavors, some of them ag-related.

But I can’t leave without thanking the many people who have extended their help, expertise, and friendship to me. Farmers, ranchers, researchers, educators, Extension agents, 4-H and FFA members, elected officials, farmworkers, farmworker advocates, ag lobbyists, agency directors and staff members, organization officials and members, tribal leaders and members, environmentalists, ag advocates and so many others — all of you made my job as a field reporter with Capital Press for the past 12 years an incredibly rich and worthwhile experience.

Whether I was driving down country roads looking for “the first big red barn on the left after the Y in the road” or on the bus headed for Seattle to attend a WTO or climate-change conference, I always felt as though I was headed toward yet another adventure.

I sometimes chuckle when I think of how naive I was when I first got the job. I thought farming was about farming. And since I had grown up on a farm in Delaware and later had a small farm in North Idaho, I thought I was well-prepared for the job.

But it wasn’t long before I received a call from Jim Jesernig, the then- director of the state’s Agriculture Department, telling me that we needed to get together as soon as possible and talk about an incredibly important topic that was going to affect farmers for years to come. When I asked what that was, he replied with one word: “salmon.”

Salmon? Well, having been the editor of a statewide fishing magazine for several years, I thought I was well-versed on that subject. Heck, I even knew how to catch them.

Once in Seattle, where we met in former Gov. Mike Lowry’s office, Jesernig, an attorney by trade, immediately brought out an incredible assortment of posters and charts that highlighted all of the legal aspects of doing harm to salmon and salmon habitat.

It was an impressive presentation, and as I rode the bus back home, I realized that because salmon live significant parts of their lives in rivers and streams and because so much farmland is located along rivers and streams that protecting fish and protecting farming as a livelihood were intricately tied together.

I also remember learning about the power of the consumer. I was attending a national biotechnology conference in Seattle, and after checking in at the press room, I rode the escalator upstairs and headed outdoors where a group of people — many of them in costumes depicting fish, tomatoes, carrots and other food items — were ardently protesting the conference. They told me that biotechnology wasn’t a proven science and that humans shouldn’t be used as guinea pigs to test out this new technology.

When I went back downstairs, I asked a scientist who was preparing her presentation if she had gone out to listen to what the protesters were saying.

“What do they know,” she said with a scornful chuckle. “We’re the scientists.”

Years later, when one dairy cooperative after another began prohibiting their members from treating their cows with Monsanto’s genetically engineered growth hormone rbST, I recalled that scientist’s words.

It made me realize that farmers need to keep their eyes on the weather vane of marketplace realties and be proactive in dealing with them. There’s no “hunkering down in the bunkers” once consumers decide that they care about such things as land stewardship, animal husbandry, and food safety.

From watching the news unfold over the years, I’ve come to learn that it’s important for farmers to remember that whether consumers’ concerns are based on science, pseudo-science, gut instincts, or misinformation, they have more power than lobbyists or scientists in the “pocketbook votes” they cast every time they shop for food.

As for me, I’ve come to appreciate the need to buy as much of my food as possible from local and regional farmers. Besides helping to keep farms of all sizes in business, shopping locally also helps keep farmland from being developed while injecting local dollars into the local economy.

Of course, agriculture is much bigger than that, but for many consumers, buying locally is a good way to help preserve the family farmer. I’ll vote for that any time.