PENDLETON - A Umatilla County wheat farmer is leading his peers as president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Sherman Reese, a fourth-generation farmer, is the first Oregonian in 20 years to lead the national organization and the first from Umatilla County in 30 years. The last was Don Woodward in 1976, Reese said.

"I'm very honored and very flattered but realize it's a tremendous responsibility to represent all the wheat growers in the country," said Reese, whose parents, Leon and Dorothy Reese, now live in Pendleton. "When I started farming with my father in 1979, I never saw myself being here."

As part of a recent "Agriculture Day" in Washington, D.C., Reese and leaders of other commodity organizations met with two former secretaries of agriculture, Clayton Yeutter and John Block, to discuss the importance of trade to the organizations.

The Echo High School graduate, who obtained his associate degree at Blue Mountain Community College and his bachelor's in agriculture at Oregon State University, expects to be making many trips this year from his wheat farm 15 miles west of Pendleton

Reese's road to the national presidency started 13 years ago when he was elected vice president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League's Umatilla County chapter. He later served as chairman of the organization's marketing committee and in 1997 began moving through the chairs of the state organization, becoming president in 2000-2001. Meanwhile, in 1999-2001, Reese was chairman of the national organization's domestic policy committee. He was among those who testified before Congress on the 2002 Farm Bill.

Serving as national president of the wheat growers, Reese expects to travel about 180 days this year and has hired a full-time employee to help run the farm as a result.

"I spent the last two weeks on Capitol Hill," Reese said recently. "Out of the last 20 days, I've spent two weeks on Capitol Hill."

Although Oregon produces about 50-60 million bushels of wheat annually, it's just a sixth of the amount produced in the leading state, Kansas. But Reese said Oregon maintains a strong presence in the national organization because it had the first state wheat association in the nation, established in 1926.

"We have a tradition of leadership at the national level because of that," he said.

Wheat acreage in the United States is dropping, and so is market share, Reese said, adding that he and other leaders are hoping to reverse that. One way to accomplish that, he said, is by supporting biotechnical engineering efforts. Scientists are developing wheat varieties that are more drought-, cold- and heat-tolerant, for example, which would allow them to be grown where they can't be grown now.

In the short term, Reese said, he and other farm industry leaders will be tracking the federal budget deficit and talking with senators and congressmen in an effort to prevent further cuts to agriculture programs.

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