In 2009, Dan Newhouse ’77 was walking through the wings of the state House of Representatives when the governor’s chief of staff approached him with a surprising offer.
Newhouse was a four-term Republican representative from Sunnyside and floor leader for his caucus, so he didn’t expect to be asked to be director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture by a Democratic governor. “At the time, everyone knew there was a vacancy, but being from a different political party I didn’t think I would be considered for that position,” he says.
Soon after, Newhouse visited with Gov. Chris Gregoire about agriculture once. Then he went back for a second visit. Then he took a week to think it over. “I decided regardless of political parties, that it was a huge opportunity and one that I couldn’t pass up,” he says.
Newhouse calls himself a hops grower, which is not surprising considering 75 to 80 percent of the nation’s hops are raised within 30 miles of his home. He also grows cherries, nectarines, wine and juice grapes, and some field crops.
He grew up on the farm with four sisters and a brother, his mother Ruth ’45, and his father Irv ’43. But he was always familiar with the state capital. The Newhouse name is prominent in Washington state politics. Irv Newhouse served in the state House and Senate for 34 years. He retired in 1998, and state lawmakers named the Senate building after him. He passed away in 2001 at age 80.
“I was nine years old when my father first ran for office. In my own way I felt I was involved in campaigns, and as I got older I got a lot more involved in the issues he was involved with,” says Newhouse, who eventually became president of the Hop Growers of Washington and Hop Growers of America.
Washington State University was also an important part of the family. All of Newhouse’s siblings attended college in Pullman. Newhouse earned his degree in agricultural economics in 1977. But it wasn’t all work, he admits. He smiles as he remembers being a Cougar Loudmouth.
“[George Raveling] had an idea of a student cheering section for all the basketball games. We got t-shirts that certified that we were Cougar Loudmouths. We got to sit in the courtside bleachers and it was our job to make lots of noise,” he says.
He lived at the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, which led to his first post-college job with the AGR national organization. Coincidentally, one of his friends and co-workers at the headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, was Walter Whitcomb from Maine, a dairy farmer’s son who served in the Maine legislature and is now head of Maine’s agriculture department.
“After a couple of years, I made the decision to come back to the farm. I never looked back,” says Newhouse. “There’s something about farming, making something grow out of the soil, something you can harvest and either eat or sell. It’s a rewarding thing for me to do.”
He accepted the job as Washington’s agriculture director because of his strong ties to the vocation and industry. From the start he has had to make some tough decisions. “Ever since my very first day on the job, we’ve been looking at questions surrounding budget issues,” he says. “What are we going to cut? What are we going to shrink? What are we going to quit doing?”
He points out that food safety, animal and plant health, and inspections are duties of the department, which are “critical not only to the industry but to the citizens of the state.”
Smaller farms, farmers’ markets, and urban agriculture will feel the budget impacts even more than bigger farms, he predicts. “One of the big cuts we faced from past legislative sessions was our domestic program. We provided a lot of services for small farmers,” he says.
And Newhouse doesn’t believe the news will improve. “About 60 percent of the WSDA budget is funded by services we provide and the fees for those services. Only about 20 percent is state general fund. In the future, I see that percentage shrinking even more,” he says.
Although his work as head of the agriculture department is a full-time job, Newhouse had one major request for the governor before taking the job: He wanted time to be on the farm for harvest and other key events. “She thought about that for a minute and she said, ‘If I have to call your farm in order to talk to my director of agriculture, that’s a good thing,’” he says.
Newhouse travels home to Sunnyside every weekend, and keeps in close touch with the people on the farm including his brother, his son Devon, and employees who have been with the business for over 30 years.