|Association Profile: Washington State Sheep Producers Association: Art Swannack, President, ASI Director
A primary focus of the Washington State Sheep Producers (WSSP) is to promote the sheep industry and help it grow throughout the state. One way the association does this, Art Swannack, WSSP president, says, is to focus much of its efforts on education, through the various hands-on schools.
“Education is a big one for us because education maintains the industry,” he relates.
The association holds a five-day beginner shearing school, one-day advanced shearing school (put on by Sarah Smith, Washington State University extension) and three lambing schools throughout the year, put on by Jill Swannack, DVM. These schools draw people from the industry, affiliated backgrounds and students who are trying to gain knowledge on sheep husbandry.
“There are a lot of people looking for experience with sheep,” he says.
The lambing school itself, says Swannack, has been a big draw for veterinary students looking to learn more about small ruminants. This school allows attendees to go through the whole lambing process through to necropsy, on both a small- and large-scale operation.
According to Swannack, the second way the association promotes the industry is through legislative work and monitoring and educating members about the markets and current issues.
At the annual convention, the association holds a legislative and benefit auction to raise funds to keep itself going and pay for officer travel.
In addition, the women’s auxiliary – Washington Wool Growers Auxiliary – hosts a booth at the Central Washington Fair in Yakima where it serves lamb burgers and lamb ribs at very low prices, says Swannack.
“They really sell a lot of product,” he says, adding that the funds raised at this booth go toward producing a producer’s newsletter, scholarships and Make it With Wool support.
The association also holds a ram sale in July of each year to give its producers a market for their sheep, as well as promote the use of quality genetics in the industry.
The location of the annual convention varies from year to year to allow all members a chance to attend. Last year’s convention, held in October, was in Pullman, Wash. The upcoming 2009 convention will be held in Spokane, Wash.
Like many other associations, Swannack says an immediate issue for the WSSP is the lack of shearers for the small-flock producers. However, through the association’s shearing schools, he feels that they are training people who are helping alleviate the situation.
Also, Swannack feels the lack of livestock-industry understanding among the general population and lawmakers is a real issue both for Washington’s and the nation’s sheep producers.
“More laws get passed because people just don’t know about agriculture,” he says.
The lack of education, says Swannack, has also allowed animal rights/anti-livestock groups to gain more of a foothold and influence lawmakers as well. Educating people on the sheep industry and the importance of agriculture, he feels, takes top priority.
“That education process is a big one to me,” he says.
In addition, encouraging and educating small producers on the industry and how to be involved in the association is important. Swannack says that the state has lost larger sheep operations, and it is imperative that small producers join the association, and give their voice to industry issues.
“You’ve got to keep your association up, and we have to bring in the small producers to help argue for the issues,” he says. “We now have such a diverse board, and they all bring a voice and different experiences. All those different industry angles are important and we need those people.”
“The state of Washington is really diverse,” says Swannack.
Because of its varying geography and climates, Washington is able to raise more than 300 agriculture products, from fruits, vegetables to dairies, timber and sheep.
Because of this, the association has members from all different types of sheep operations, large and small.
Swannack says his membership is made up of producers who raise sheep on an island, those whose operations are on the coast, backyard operations, as well as range flocks in the basin that graze on crop aftermath, and the association works hard to be a voice for them all.
In addition, the shearing schools and lambing schools are not something that all associations offer, and the WSSP is proud of providing that experience to people.
“The lambing school is just awesome,” Swannack concludes.