If changes in leadership are comparable to shifting seasons, Dave Dillon reckons he’s had a “very long, full season” at the Oregon Farm Bureau.
After 20 years at the state ag group’s helm, Dillon has taken a job at Food Northwest, a regional organization representing food processors.
“The hardest time to leave can also be the best time to leave,” he said.
Dillon figures the organization is in solid shape for whoever replaces him as executive vice president — financially strong, with a “fantastic” roster of staff members and elected leaders, he said.
As Food Northwest’s executive director, he expects to deal with “ag-adjacent” issues, such as labor shortages and environmental regulations, that are substantially similar but one step downstream in the food supply chain.
“There’s a real opportunity to take something good and build it up to something better,” Dillon said of his new job.
An overlapping challenge facing both organizations is the current political environment, which he’s watched become increasingly belligerent and divisive over the past couple decades.
“Politics in Oregon were a lot more centrist in those early years,” Dillon said. “There was a lot more collegiality among the elected leaders, even if they were from a different party."
When the state Legislature was more evenly divided between conservative and liberal lawmakers, compromise was typically necessary to get anything done, he said.
Now that the House and Senate are dominated by left-leaning super-majorities, though, there’s no longer much incentive to reach across the aisle.
For agriculture, that’s translated into a steeply mounting regulatory burden, he said. “It’s the toughest political climate I’ve ever seen for farmers and ranchers.”
The Oregon Farm Bureau will surely encounter numerous important problems in the years to come, but Dillon advises its members to focus on those that most endanger their livelihoods.
“Is this something that will impact my ability to be farming or ranching next year?” Dillon said. “Does it affect my ability to keep producing?”
Dillon isn’t entirely pessimistic about the prospects for agriculture and natural resource industries in the political arena, however.
If people realize the state’s policies aren’t improving their lives or resolving serious problems, they’ll likely make their dissatisfaction known at the ballot box, he said.
“I do believe there’s a potential for the pendulum to move back toward the middle,” Dillon said. “At some point, voters will make a decision to try something different.”
In the meantime, the staff and members of the Farm Bureau are capable of defending against damaging laws and regulations, as they’ve proven in the past, he said.
“Countless times, we’ve stopped bad legislation or bad rules, or at least made them less harmful,” Dillon said.
The Farm Bureau is also better equipped to fight such battles due to the reliable coalition it’s built with other crop, livestock and irrigator groups, he said.
Agriculture and natural resource advocates have set aside their differences to cooperate on common interests, amplifying their influence over the years, Dillon said.
“They’re more cohesive now than they have been at other times,” he said. “I’m proud to see that happen.”
Beyond the Farm Bureau’s state-level successes, Dillon is encouraged by the group’s victories at the national scale during his tenure.
For example, the organization prevailed against the U.S. Department of Labor’s “hot goods” tactics during the Obama administration.
The federal agency accused farmers of underpaying alleged “ghost workers” who weren’t represented in employment records.
If pickers harvested more fruit per hour than the agency believed reasonable, it assumed they’d been helped by unauthorized “ghost workers” receiving less than the minimum wage.
Crops grown by targeted farmers were declared “hot goods” by the federal agency, blocking the perishable fruits from sale unless the employers paid hefty settlements.
The Oregon Farm Bureau represented farmers in federal court, ultimately recovering those financial payments and exposing the “ghost worker” charges as baseless, Dillon said.
The agency was unable to find the vast majority of 1,000 “ghost workers” supposedly identified by its hourly harvest formula, which farmers claimed was arbitrarily and inaccurately calculated.
“The precedent was super important for anyone who has labor,” he said. “There was a lot of interest nationally in what was happening. We weren’t just carrying the torch for Oregon producers. It had a lot of importance to the broader ag community.”
The episode taught a valuable lesson to overzealous, “out-of-control” federal employees, Dillon said. “We see what you’re doing and there mechanisms for us to correct what you’re doing. And you really shouldn’t do it again.”
Though he doesn’t come from an agricultural background, Dillon said he felt a kinship with farmers and ranchers while working as a staffer in the 1990s for U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.
He was eager to build on those relationships upon accepting a job as the Oregon Farm Bureau’s communications director, which led to his hiring for the top position in 2002.
“I felt a connection with producers,” Dillon said. “They’re very pragmatic and want to get stuff done.”