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Perseverance, Passion & Planning: Highlighting Past President Sharp

Tom Sharp was elected President of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association at the 2019 Annual Convention, and he’ll be the first to tell you how the challenges over the past two years were unlike anything he could’ve expected.

“We tackled a lot of ‘black swan’ events in 2020,” said Sharp. Global Pandemic, switch to virtual communication, Tyson Foods plant fire, packer monopoly, labor shortages and a disrupt in the beef supply chain to name a few. Despite an inability to meet in person with legislators, county members, and the public due to COVID-19, Tom Sharp persevered in guiding the association with OCA’s Strategic Plan and contributing to OCA’s foundation for future generations to come.

BEFORE THE RANCH
Tom and his wife, Pat, met in Ohio during their freshman year in high school. Pat and her family had just moved to the states from Germany, where her father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. Tom and Pat married in 1974. Tom graduated from the University of Dayton with a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA degree. He began his career in technology eventually moving the Sharp family (including Tom and Pat’s sons, Tom Jr., and Rob) to Portland in 1981. Tom worked for the original Oregon technology company, Tektronix – coined for planting
the first tree in the “Silicon Forest,” also known as Oregon. Tom worked in high-tech for 35 years. In the 1990’s he started to think about his “second life” after years of grinding the pavement. He began to dream of horses to ride, sagebrush land where buildings were out of sight, and cattle.

HEADING EAST
Before Tom even imagined his last day in the office, he laid the groundwork for establishing a ranch in Harney County. Tom began making trips to Burns and confided in rancher and past OCA President Charlie Otley. Otley guided Tom as he purchased land, cattle, and horses. For ten years, Tom and Pat would load up the car on Friday night and drive from Portland to Burns only to return on Sunday to start the workweek.

“I remember several times getting stuck in a blizzard on the Santiam Pass – one time we had to wait it out for eight hours, but we loved the adventure, we knew Eastern Oregon and the ranch was our future,” said Sharp. After ten years of a long commute, Tom retired, and Pat was accepted as the Superintendent of the Crane Boarding school in Harney County. In 2008, the Sharps made their final commute to the ranch and never looked back. Tom worked in partnership with Charlie Otley and with his guidance, purchased 35 pairs from Roaring Springs Ranch. It was at that point, Otley mentioned to Tom that he might want to get involved in this association called, OCA.

PRIVATE LANDS & GREATER SAGE-GROUSE
As Tom began buying and selling land for grazing, he learned about this little bird, called the Greater Sage-Grouse and he quickly realized the impact this bird could have on his operation and his neighbors if private land was classified as primary habitat for the bird. Sage-Grouse rely on very specific habitats, particularly sagebrush. Listing the bird on the Endangered Species List would have restricted ranchers’ use of private lands in Eastern Oregon. Tom asked himself, what can I do to protect myself and neighbors against these restrictions? The answer was to volunteer as chair of a committee in Harney County to develop Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA) for private landowners. Tom, along with other stakeholder volunteers, developed a conservation model to protect Sage-Grouse in Oregon. The model was eventually adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2014 and was picked up by other counties in the state and eventually, the Oregon model was implemented to protect the bird in other western states. After his work on this project, Tom was approached by OCA President at the time, Curtis Martin who asked Tom to serve as OCA’s Endangered Species Committee Chair.

“That was a critical time for endangered species listings and the relationship with property owners; I felt a calling to pay attention and be of service to other cattlemen,” said Sharp.

For the next eight years, Tom Sharp served as OCA’s Endangered Species Chair involved in policy decisions and legal arguments to protect the future of the industry – preventing restrictions that might lead to a depletion in the economic value of the land. Eventually, Tom was nominated to ascend in the slate of OCA’s Executive Officer team from Treasurer to President-Elect and eventually President. When I asked Tom why he agreed to be nominated he said, “I have a passion for protecting this industry and a calling to help other producers in the state and
beyond.”

THE UNEXPECTED HURDLES
After Tom was elected President in November of 2019, he hit the road and managed to attend seven county meetings before the world came to a standstill in March of 2020. His goal was to hear from as many grassroots members as possible about the concerns and hopes for Oregon’s cattle industry and then represent those concerns and hopes to Oregon’s legislative body during the 2020 Legislative Session. Little did he know that communication would look much different than ever before. Due to COVID-19 the Session turned virtual, and Tom found himself
communicating to members, committees, and legislators via ZOOM.

“In some ways, virtual was easier because we could meet with more people without traveling, but it can never replace the face-to-face interaction. It was a wake-up call to my lack of internet connectivity at my house where the nearest public road is six miles away,”
said Tom.

Another hurdle during the pandemic was the fragility of the beef supply chain. Tom said, “the supply chain is like a pie with many slices – Producer, Stocker, Transporter, Packer, Retailer, and Consumer. We don’t have a whole pie if one of those slices gets a bite taken out of it.” The pandemic brought labor shortages to the supply chain and other unforeseen circumstances such as the Tyson plant fire in Kansas and the JBS Ransomware attack, which brought significant blows to the processing part of the pie. Tom also confronted the packer monopolization and the increased price of beef brought on by the four packing companies controlling 83 percent of the market. While beef prices were rising at retail, producers weren’t seeing the profit.

“The pandemic did show us that consumers prioritized demand for beef. People cleared grocery shelves of beef as they stocked up on groceries. This was a good sign, but at the same time a lot of questions were raised about what is being done right and wrong in the supply chain,” said Tom. With this awareness, OCA has strongly advocated for funding for local processing programs and Congress is now taking a closer look at the transparency of the market. An additional unforeseen hurdle Tom faced was the resignation of OCA’s previous Executive Director Jerome Rosa and the task to fill an empty seat. Tom was involved in the hiring committee efforts and selection to fill the position. Tom was at the forefront of creating new tactical objectives for the position and examining what does OCA need/want for the future in an Executive Director.

“In the end, it was a clear win hiring Tammy Dennee as OCA’s Executive Director,” Tom said, “that decision was one of the most important I made as president.” Through these hurdles, Tom has relied on OCA’s Strategic Plan to guide his leadership and the direction of the association. The four main pillars of the plan are Representation, Communication, Membership, and Effective Organization.

THE WINS
When asked about the “wins,” Tom replied, “I think our wins can be explained best by looking at the strategic plan that guides the work of OCA.” First, Representation: During the 2021 Legislative Session, OCA’s Legislative Committee was robust. The committee met often (virtually) and created a cohesive list of legislative priorities to focus on, including wildlife management, water quality and quantity, public and private lands, market access and operating costs, and budget and state finance.

“OCA’s Legislative Committee was very vocal this year and we took positions on many bills, including expanding meat inspection services in the state; we had a strong, unified voice,” said Sharp. Second, Communication: Tom is proud of the advances the association has made internally to expand communication tools for members and the public. In 2020, OCA staff improvised to provide more information to ranchers virtually by creating YouTube interviews on important topics and offering a voluntary local meat supply list to consumers on the website.

In the past year, OCA revamped the website creating a user-friendly platform for resources and an online membership registration form. Staff also implemented a weekly e-newsletter, The Post, with resources, events, and updates on policy. Third, Membership: “Membership development is ongoing,” said Sharp, “but I believe we’re effective in working for producers and ranchers are learning about what we offer – membership in OCA is the best bang for their buck!” Over the past two years, OCA has brought credentials and influence on state and national policies from the membership. NCBA adopted a policy in 2020 on Transparency in Labeling that originated at the grassroots level here in Oregon.

The final pillar of the strategic plan, Effective Organization: Tom contributes the hiring process of the new Executive Director to this pillar of the plan. “Since hiring Tammy we have seen a real turn in operational organization, we’re back to a balanced financial budget – we’re in a healthy financial position and that feels good,” said Sharp.

BEST WISHES
Tom wishes the newly elected officers and President Todd Nash the best of luck. “When times get tough, just remember this association and the people it protects are worthy of your time, attention and study,” said Sharp. While Tom wishes he could have been more present in-person during his presidency he is comforted in the work the association has achieved over the past two years and feels like OCA’s voice is growing every day. “Members may have different opinions on issues, but that’s what makes a strong and effective association when we come together and communicate those differences to create strong policy for this industry,” Tom said, “OCA has a great foundation right now and I see nothing but a bright future.”

Tom will continue to serve on the Board of Directors as the Immediate Past President; however, he is looking forward to spending more time with Pat, his sons, and his two grandsons and two granddaughters. He looks forward to a slower pace on his ranch and to rediscover “retirement” on the range. Thank you, Tom Sharp, for your service, your perseverance, and your passion for protecting the people involved in this great industry.

Written by Robyn H. Smith, OCA’s Communications Director