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Focus on Farming looks to the future

TULALIP — Futurist farming took center stage at the seventh annual Snohomish County “Focus on Farming” conference, which returned to the Tulalip Resort’s conference center on Nov. 4 this year.

Bob Treadway, one of the event’s keynote speakers, has worked for 25 years as a strategy consultant and foresight advisor for organizations such as Berkshire Hathaway, Motorola, Gillette, Syngenta, Farm Credit Services, the Federal Reserve, AT&T and the National Corn Growers Association. In keeping with the conference’s “Get Up and Grow!” theme this year, Treadway urged attendees to adopt a proactive approach to the future in order not only to survive, but also to thrive as agricultural businesses.

“The future is coming at you rapidly,” Treadway said. “It’ll only be a blink of an eye before it’s already 2020. When a client sees that on their own, I know that they’re looking ahead.”

Although he makes his living as a futurist, Treadway warned against trying to predict the future and instead advised attendees to forecast the future.

“The difference is that forecasting takes the uncertainty of the future into account with odds, and adjusts with time and new information,” Treadway said.

Treadway cited the recent midterm elections as an example of a significant event whose implications will have ripple effects on agriculture for years to come, in terms of which members of Congress will rank highest on agricultural committees and how they’ll vote to fund the USDA and EPA. He praised weather forecasters for employing “a cone of relative certainty,” whose range of possible outcomes expands over time, and urged attendees to use such cones in their own fields, not only for planning and preparation, but also for action.

Treadway criticized members of the agricultural field whom he believes have engaged in self-destructive divisiveness, noting the mass withdrawal from the Leonardo Academy’s sustainable agriculture standard setting initiative.

“Every major agricultural association walked out,” Treadway said. “They won’t be in the room when these standards are passed. These regulations affect you as farmers. We’re all in this together and we need to work together. The invective needs to stop.”

Treadway’s forecasts for the future were soberingly grim, but he offered attendees some some hope.

“I wish I had better news for you,” said Treadway, who identified some backward progress in the recession recovery in recent months. “This recession is three years old and it’s not over yet. Double-digit unemployment is with us for years to come. There are 2 million Americans closing in on that 99-week mark of unemployment when their benefits will end. In order to get out of this we’re going to need to create 250,000 jobs a month.”

Treadway credited small businesses, agriculture among them, with creating 75 percent of the country’s jobs, but reported that 71 percent of those employers have no plans to hire new employees until the economy improves. His prognosis for the fuel pump was no more cheerful given that he anticipates oil prices could rise above $100 a barrel within the next four years.

“Will consumers come to farmers’ markets when they’re paying as much as $7 to fill up their tanks?” Treadway asked the crowd. “You need to streamline your operations now, because this will hit the plate eventually.”

Treadway pointed to Trader Joe’s as a good business not only for vendors to do business with, but also for other businesses to emulate, since founder Joe Coulombe tracked consumer’s buying habits and adopted “green” practices before they became fashionable in the marketplace.

“Trader Joe’s sets trends and experiments with new products,” Treadway said. “As a result, it’s one of the most profitable businesses per square foot of floor space in the country.”

While Treadway expressed admiration for traditional production agriculture for its distribution, cooperate use, precise metrics, political clout and understanding of international trade, he believes that it could learn a lot from organic and sustainable agriculture in the areas of imagination, experimentation and exploring multiple channels.

Among the new venues that Treadway encouraged agricultural businesses to explore is social media. He held up Tyson Roberts of Ogden, Utah, as but one example of how the Internet can lead to increased consumer traffic for farmers, since Roberts’ Facebook updates on his strawberry crop gave him “more orders than he could handle.”

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