He’s a former pig farmer with a Web site, a 280-pound tractor driver with a downtown office suite.
Dennis Fiess, the manager of the Spokane Ag Bureau, provides a link between Inland Northwest farmers and processors and urban businesses.
After 25 years as a wheat and pork producer, Fiess hung up his overalls eight years ago and slipped into burgundy suspenders and striped shirts to help area farmers and agribusinesses improve their markets and public image in Spokane.
“Because I have feet in both worlds - farming and business - I try to build bridges between them,” the 53-year-old says from his office at the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, the bureau’s parent organization.
Under Fiess’ direction, the bureau’s 160 members annually throw Spokane’s largest trade show, the Pacific Northwest Farm Forum and Ag Expo. The event, which will be held Jan. 16-18, draws more than 6,000 people each year.
The bureau also conducts continuing education courses for school teachers, lobbies for agriculture in Olympia and operates the state’s only clearinghouse for commodity organizations to communicate with each other. At the same time, Fiess is helping the chamber build a World Wide Web site.
“Dennis isn’t afraid to jump in and tackle anything you want him to do,” says Brad Hoyt, past chairman of the Ag Bureau and a financial planner for Waddell & Reed. “Businesses benefit a lot more than they may think” from Fiess’ efforts.
But Fiess doesn’t please everyone. Last year, when he brought beef-industry antagonist Jeremy Rifkin to the Farm Forum, Fiess received threats from some ranchers. The 6-foot, 1-inch Fiess hired off-duty police officers to protect Rifkin and himself, though no one carried through on the threats.
Another of Fiess’ unpopular opinions is that government subsidies paid to wheat farmers may do more harm than good in the long run. Fiess believes farmers are smart enough to succeed as their grandparents did without government help.
“Government subsidies are going away,” says Fiess, who as a landlord received $5,620 in government subsidies last year. “But I road a tractor long enough to know that farmers have got a lot of time to think, and there’s farmers out there with a lot of great ideas.
“If they can find a way to add a few thousand dollars to their bottom line, that will make the difference between surviving and not.”
Fiess believes that’s part of his job - to help farmers and agribusiness owners succeed. By exposing them to what consumers and farm critics think, they’ll be better equipped to change when necessary.
But Fiess also believes that Spokane has a responsibility to aid agricultural when it’s in trouble. When the Pentagon periodically threatens to close Fairchild Air Force Base, Spokane business leaders blitz Congress with an outcry to save the base. But when a forest plan threatens sawmills with layoffs or a budget plan threatens to chop $100 million in farm subsidies from the coffers of Inland Northwest farmers and landlords, Spokane seems indifferent.
“I sense a growing detachment from the soil,” says Fiess, who used to manage a 1,200-acre farm south of Reardan.
Fiess, a 1964 graduate of Washington State University, sold his cattle herd in 1976 to buy his brother’s interest in the farm. As land values fell in the 1980s, the former president of the Washington Pork Producers felt increasingly enslaved to the bank. He began to despise the summer wheat harvest and was antsy to try something new.
Fiess won a seat on the Reardan-Edwall School Board and opened a consulting business to help fellow farmers file financial reports on personal computers. That gave him the business experience he needed to manage the bureau, which hired him in 1988.
Fiess, who commutes to work with his wife, Carey, from their Reardan farmhouse, initially was jarred by the pace of business in the city.
In the timeless culture of the country, he says, farmers eat first, talk business second and conclude a three-hour meeting with more socializing. But in the city, business people gobble down lunch while rushing through a business meeting, wrapping up the meeting in an hour.
“Every once in a while,” Fiess says, “I turn to my wife and whisper, ‘We’re a long way from the hog house.’ “
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