Alex McGregor is not your typical wheat farmer.
Or business man. Or college professor. Or historian.
The new president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers appears to be all things in all places.
First, he is heir to the century-old McGregor tradition of farming and agricultural business in the Inland Northwest.
His family came to the Columbia Plateau in the 1800s to raise sheep, but adapted to the changes in agriculture to raise cattle and hogs, operate feed lots, grow wheat, barley and alfalfa, run an irrigation company, sell agricultural chemicals and farm machinery and become one of the largest private employers in Whitman County.
Many in the family lived in the town of Hooper. McGregor grew up there, attending school with 13 other children.
“Back then,” he said. “I thought Ritzville was a big town.”
A member of the third generation of Scottish-Canadian farmers to work land in Eastern Washington, Alex McGregor took his love for the land to Whitman College in the 1970s and expanded his education with a graduate degree in history from the University of Washington. His focus - no surprise - was agriculture.
He wrote an authoritative book, titled “Counting Sheep,” which focused on how farming has changed in the past 100 years. He used his family and their private and business records as the lens through which to view the history.
After a few years teaching history at Whitman and then UW, he went back to the family farm.
“I love agriculture. Getting involved in the present day (operations of the family business) was a smooth extension of that focus,” he said.
Now as president of the McGregor Company, he operates 30 equipment and fertilizer distributorships and oversees 300 employees. As head of McGregor Land and Livestock, the large 116-year-old ranch, he raises wheat and animals.
As if he doesn’t have enough to do, McGregor, since Jan. 1, has been president of the state wheat growers association. He represents more than 3,500 wheat farmers and land owners in 13 counties.
He also is on the board of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
“Alex certainly provides a unique perspective as a NAWG board member,” said Bill Flory, president of the national association. “He brings a wealth of business experience to the group. He understands what a lot of the industry think. And he sees a lot of opportunity for NAWG.”
Even his style of communicating is different.
“People tend to listen to him,” Flory said. “He’s not a clanging bell. He has the ability to sway people with good sound business arguments.”
His duties take him all over the state for wheat grower meetings and business. Two weeks ago, he was in Olympia talking with the senators and representatives about WAWG’s agenda. Last week, McGregor started in Ritzville with the monthly WAWG meeting.
“I’m glad to do it,” he said. “It’s something that’s important and there are so many challenges.”
Among the issues he faces this year as WAWG president is the relationship between agriculture and the environment. Whether it’s dealing with federal programs designed to conserve soil and preserve wildlife habitat or regulations of pesticides and farm waste, McGregor’s preparing himself and his fellow wheat farmers for the future.
He’s also hoping to get past business barriers like “junk science” and “phony trade barriers.” He alluded to the trade barrier created by China’s refusal to accept imports of U.S. wheat on the basis that it may be contaminated with a fungus known as TCK smut. U.S. agriculture specialists say the fungus is not a real threat, but rather a bargaining tool that China is using.
“That issue is of concern to us in the Northwest,” McGregor said. “It goes back 30 years.”
He also plans to push for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create more marketing agreements with other countries so wheat farmers can keep their position as one of the leaders in the export market.
Why is he doing all this, when he has more than the average farm or business to run?
It could be because he’s inextricably tied to the industry. It could be his passion for watching history in the making. Or, it could be that he’s got farming in his blood.
“It’s a challenging business, but a rewarding one,” he said. “The wheat-raising industry is one of dedicated family business people that have got a rich heritage on that land.”
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