By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
BOISE – Idaho barley growers say the industry will have a big void to fill when Kelly Olson retires in July.
Olson has served as administrator of the Idaho Barley Commission for the past 24 years and has overseen Idaho’s rise to become the No. 1 barley producing state in the nation.
“Kelly has forgotten more about barley than most of us have ever known,” said Soda Springs farmer and IBC commissioner Scott Brown. “She’s been a great asset to the barley industry and she’s going to be missed.”
IBC commissioners said they believe they have found a solid replacement in Laura Wilder, who began working side by side with Olson in June, but they also said there’s no doubt that Olson takes an enormous amount of institutional knowledge about the industry with her into retirement.
“Kelly has been a very influential person in the barley industry in Idaho and has established herself as an authority on the national and international markets,” said IBC commissioner and Picabo farmer Pat Purdy. “She has served the industry well and her expertise will be sorely missed.”
“We all have our niches where we know something about barley. Kelly knows the big picture,” said IBC commissioner Timothy Pella, the industry representative on the commission.
Olson said she will miss her job greatly and retirement is bittersweet.
“I’ve been with this organization for 24 years and I’ve built some very deep friendships and relationships with producers, researchers and industry and it’s hard to leave those behind,” she said. “But every life has a season and I just decided the time is right.”
Olson said she is leaving at a time when the industry is in a good position.
Idaho ranks No. 1 in barley production in the United States and USDA forecasts barley acres will increase 6 percent to 560,000 in Idaho this year, while acres in other major barley states are forecast to decrease.
Total U.S. barley acres in 2018 are estimated at 2.29 million, down 8 percent from 2017.
“Idaho barley is doing really well,” Olson said. “I leave the industry, I think, in pretty good shape.”
IBC commissioner and Bonners Ferry farmer Wes Hubbard said it’s no coincidence that Idaho’s rise to become the top barley state coincided with Olson’s tenure at the helm of the commission.
“I credit Kelly and the Idaho Barley Commission for establishing those markets for Idaho growers,” he said. “The barley growers are going to miss Kelly a lot.”
Olson’s impact on Idaho agriculture extends well beyond the barley industry, said Rich Garber, governmental affairs director for the Idaho Grain Producers Association.
During the 1980s, she served as a legislative aide for a couple of different Idaho congressmen in Washington, D.C., and while there, she worked on the watershed 1985 farm bill that created the Conservation Reserve Program and started the country down the path of decoupling farm supports from production decisions.
While working for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture for seven years, Olson started the department’s marketing program and helped open its Mexico trade office.
She took one week off between her jobs at ISDA and the barley commission.
Olson was also the vision behind the creation of the annual Idaho Ag Summit, which brings together a few hundred leaders of the state’s farming industry, Garber told participants of this year’s Ag Summit in February.
“Just as Ag Summit would not be what it is today without the influence of Kelly, Idaho agriculture would not be what it is today without Kelly,” he said.
Olson, who was raised on a farm outside Mountain Home, said that during her retirement, she plans to be a dedicated volunteer for several food-related organizations, including the Idaho Foodbank, Treasure Valley Food Coalition and Boise Farmers Market.
“I’m passionate about agriculture and food and consumers,” she said. “They are all related. Without consumers, we wouldn’t be in the business of agriculture.”
She said she wants to be remembered for her love of the barley industry.
“Every day I’ve started my day thinking about barley,” Olson said. “What a wonderful crop and business community it is and it’s been the greatest joy of my professional life to have been able to work for and with that industry.”