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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

From combines on ice to a lonely buffalo, Myrna O’Leary retiring after overseeing ‘30 great shows’

Myrna O’Leary is a one-woman show who plans and manages the Spokane Ag Expo and Pacific Farm Forum. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Combines aren’t built to travel on ice. Myrna O’Leary knows this, after decades of getting farm machinery down North River Road and Division Street to the Spokane Convention Center in the dead of winter.

Moving equipment into the exhibit hall – sometimes during blizzards – is one of many details that goes into putting on the Spokane Ag Expo and Pacific Farm Forum. The three-day show kicks off Tuesday, bringing about 5,000 farmers, lenders and exhibitors to town.

This is the last show for O’Leary, its director, who is retiring after 30 years with Greater Spokane Incorporated.

She recently sat down to talk about Ag Expo. From the use of drones for crop monitoring to providing classes for small-acreage farmers, the show is constantly evolving to meet changing needs in the agricultural community.

Q: Are you from the Spokane area?

A: Born and raised. I’m a graduate of North Central High School and Spokane Community College.

Q: What types of activities interested you as a kid?

A: I was a tomboy – the oldest of nine kids. I had six brothers, and all my cousins were boys. We lived at the outskirts of the city limits. The largest chicken ranch in the Spokane area was right across the street from us. I married into a ranching family. My husband’s family raised cattle north of Spokane, and we helped with that.

I’ve been in and out of agriculture all of my life, though never on the crop side.

Q: When did you start working at GSI?

A: Aug. 11, 1988. I don’t know why I remember that date; it’s kind of like a birthday. I was working at the Spokane Community College’s foundation office but looking for another job.

I did my first Ag Expo-Farm Forum in January 1989. Dennis Fiess was my boss. We worked together for 14 years and he taught me the ropes.

Q: How big is the show?

A: We bring 5,000 to 6,000 people to Spokane, and there’s a $10 million to $13 million local economic impact.

Exhibitors come from all over the U.S. and Canada. Attendancewise, we pull from Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, North Idaho and some from Montana. But it’s February, and there are those mountain passes to navigate.

I’ve never figured out how to control Mother Nature. (Laughs) The farmers haven’t figured it out either.

Q: How did last year’s heavy snow affect Ag Expo?

A: The farm machinery starts rolling into our staging lot by Cataldo, Howard and Washington on Thursday. By Saturday morning, we had a foot of fresh snow. I got a call about a tractor-trailer jackknifed in the lot. The driver was from Arkansas. He had never been in snow before. Didn’t come prepared. No chains.

A couple of my farmer people – volunteers with pick ups and blades – plowed out the lot. I got ahold of the mayor and the Public Facilities District. They got the streets plowed and de-iced.

We had to change the route to the convention center because there’s that hill from Cataldo down to Washington. We had to make sure we wouldn’t take out vehicles with combines.

Q: How would you describe Ag Expo to someone who has never attended?

A: For the farmers, it’s a social event. We target dry-land agriculture and small-acreage farmers with 2 to 80 acres. You walk around the show and you see these pods of different farmers visiting and chatting.

The farmers come to see what’s new with machinery, and we run 35 seminars. We hit the latest trends with education – what’s new and cutting edge.

The first few years I did the show, farmers were just starting to use computers. We did seminars on how to use QuickBooks.

When drones first started, we thought really? And we debated and we debated. Now drones are like an every day tool. It’s amazing what farmers can do with them.

A: I’ve heard the weather speaker is very popular.

Q: Art Douglas is an authority for farmers on weather. He hits it right on. He fills the room.

One year he didn’t make it, and I thought people would hang us from the gallows. I don’t know how many more years we’ll have him. He’s retired from Creighton University, so it’s kind of on a year-to-year basis with him.

Q: How long does it take to plan the show?

A: All year. When the show is over, I take a week off. Then we kick right into gear.

The brochures and program go to the printer in July. We start slotting booths in September and contracts are mailed out in October. I meet with a whole lot of people, the hotels, the convention center.

I’m a workaholic, probably to a fault. I don’t have a life in January, but that’s OK. My life is the show, and I love the show.

Q: Are you training a replacement?

A: Heather Hamlin has been hired in-house. Her new title is investor relations project manager and director of AgriBusiness and Ag Expo. I’ll be here through the end of March, so she’ll get a 101 lesson after the show.

Q: How many hours do you work during Ag Expo week?

A: Eighty-five to 90. There is so much you can’t do until the last minute. You know things will happen, you just don’t know what will happen. You deal with people who have a 20-by-20 space, but they bring a big combine and the combine won’t fit.

I panic every year – it’s the type A personality. But it all comes together.

We also have about 100 volunteers working during the show. They put in hundreds of hours.

Q: What kind of emergencies do you deal with during the show?

A: We had a live buffalo in the arena one year. He was a pet, and he got lonely. The security guard walked by after the show closed, and the buffalo decided he wanted to go where the security guard was. He started walking and took his enclosure with him. Freaked the security guard out. The buffalo spent the rest of the nights outside in a trailer.

Q: How does it feel to be leaving the show?

A: This has been me for 30 years, so it will be tough. I get a little teary-eyed thinking about it, and I’m not a crier. I might just tie a Kleenex box around my neck during show week. These are people I’ve known and worked with for 30 years.

Q: What will you do after you retire?

A: Everyone asks that. I’ve been so busy I haven’t thought about it yet.

Q: What’s your best Ag Expo memory?

A: My best memories are after I go home after “move-out” on Thursday night. It’s been another good year, another great show. I have been involved in 30 great shows.

It’s a fun job, fun people. If it didn’t have a little craziness, it would probably be boring.