Class 43's Graduation - April 2023

Back row (L to R)

  • Mikala Staples Hughes – Sakuma Bros. Farms and Processing – Director of Quality and Technical Services – Mount Vernon
  • Jared Larwick – Department of Natural Resources – Natural Resource Specialist – Vancouver
  • Garrett Warren – Warren Farms – Precision Data Manager – Dayton
  • Karen Sheehan – J&K Dairy, LLC – Owner – Sunnyside
  • Jordan Hansen – Amway / Nutrilite – Group Leader (Operations Manager) – Ephrata
  • Collin Emmerson – Sierra Pacific Industries – Forester/Log Procurement – Eugene, OR
  • Darcy Batura – The Nature Conservancy – Director of Forest Partnerships – Roslyn
  • Sean O’Brien – Washington Policy Center – Eastern Washington Director – Richland
  • Pat Carter – Weyerhaeuser – Washington Marketing Team Lead – Battle Ground

Front row (L to R)

  • Allie Dobler – AgWest Farm Credit – Vice President/Customer Care – Spokane
  • Danika Pink – Pink Farms – Benton City
  • Maria Beltran – House Democratic Campaign Committee – Political Director – Seattle
  • Erica Christie-Jones – Department of Natural Resources – Forest Practices Forester – Eatonville


By Sean O’Brien, Eastern Washington Director for Washington Policy Center


Good evening, I’m Sean O’Brien, Eastern Washington Director for Washington Policy Center. I thought I’d start by just sharing a bit of context on how I got here. I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco and Portland; I was a suburban boy through and through, I didn’t grow up around farming or agriculture, I had never shot a gun until just a few years ago, I couldn’t tell you what a heat unit was or what time of year hops harvest is or what the heck a post driver was, let alone how it’s used.


But then I went to work for a farmer in Congress.


For the past eight years, I worked in Washington D.C. as an advisor to Congressman Dan Newhouse – an AgForestry alum of Class 4 and Class 35’s Stu Bledsoe Award recipient.


Working on behalf of the communities and families and businesses and industries of Central Washington truly changed everything for me.


It’s how I stand before you today as a walking contradiction, a gay Republican cowboy boot-wearing city boy who recently went from living in a 500 sq. ft. apartment in the heart of Washington D.C. to move to Eastern Washington, surrounded by farms and orchards and county fairs and dirt and grit.


And I couldn’t be more excited.


You see during my time with Congressman Newhouse, I learned so much more about the rural way of life; of the truest form of hard work, of determination, of the values instilled by programs like FFA and 4-H and Farm Bureau; of the life skills that are passed down from farmers and farm workers to their children who grow up knowing what it really means to work.


That growth in my worldview, that transformation, was nothing short of profound. It was just such a genuinely different way of life compared to my cookie-cutter suburban childhood – not that there was anything wrong with the way I was raised whatsoever – but it provided me such a deep, deep appreciation for these communities and their values, and I really fell in love with and came to deeply care for these people because of it.


Problem Solving & Consensus-Seeking

I’d like to briefly touch upon some of the key lessons we’ve focused on in our program: those of problem solving, of collaboration, and of consensus-seeking. But first I want to make sure to not assume that everyone in the room is intimately familiar with the AgForestry program and what the past 18 months have looked like for our class. Across more than a dozen seminars – 11 here in Washington state, one in Washington, D.C., and our international visit to Vietnam – we dove deep into the pillars and issues, challenges and opportunities facing agriculture, natural resources, and forestry across our state. From the Skagit Valley down to Walla Walla, from Vancouver to Colville, and many stops in between, we not only focused on these core issues but also their intersection with the rest of society – from transportation to social services, communications and policy to crime and corrections and government.


And along the way, we heard from some incredibly impactful speakers and leaders in our state. I’d like to briefly point out two that stood out for me and for my classmates.


Alex McGregor, Class 6 – himself a recipient of the Stu Bledsoe Award from Class 21 – is the farmer’s farmer. He is the ultimate advocate and story-teller for his business, his industry, his fellow farmers, his region, and his state. Alex’s optimism is always palpable. His label for himself as a “passionate moderate” is indicative of the fervor with which he approaches solving problems and finding consensus while still advocating for his way of life. We’re so grateful to him for the time spent with our class.


Someone else our class so thoroughly enjoyed hearing from was Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck, a passionate and optimistic leader himself.


As a quick aside, the first time I met Denny, I was a recent graduate from Gonzaga working for an investment firm in Seattle. When I introduced myself and shared that I was a Zag and had worked for several Republican Members of Congress in college, he got in my face and said – “You mean to tell me you’re Jesuit educated and you’re a Republican? Jesus hates you!”


We’ve developed a friendship ever since and I continue to be grateful for the advice he continues to share with me, a passionate Republican, coming from such a passionate Democrat.


You see, in these polarized times, it can be so easy to stay in our lanes, in our tribes, in our own corners of the room. It doesn’t make headlines when you treat others with respect, but it does when you name call, when you vilify, when you castigate the other side endlessly.


We can be fierce in our advocacy for our opinions and our way of seeing things and our own way of life; but as these leaders have demonstrated throughout their lives and careers, they can at the same time actively work to see from others’ perspectives. It’s when this work is done that we see the needle can be moved to solve pressing problems. It’s what I witnessed firsthand working for Congressman Newhouse, and I’ll also be forever grateful for his model of leadership.


Class 43

So as we heard from leaders across the state, we also got to know each other deeply. I’d like to share with you a bit about my classmates, whom I think I probably learned the most from throughout this journey – I know many of them would say the same.


We are farmers and producers; we are environmentalists; we’re foresters and policy advocates; we are Democrats and Republicans and independents; we come from big businesses and small family operations; some of us work directly with the land, some of us work in offices in ag and resources-adjacent roles.


As another anecdote from our travels together, I was so glad to be able to host my classmates for our Washington, D.C. seminar and we were honored with the opportunity to lead a wreath-laying ceremony with Congressman Newhouse at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. I discreetly collected materials from my colleagues – wheat from Warren Farms in Dayton, wood cookies from Jared’s private timber lands in Southwest Washington, dried berries from Sakuma Brothers in the Skagit Valley, and hops from Newhouse Farms in Sunnyside. Congressman Newhouse invited our class president, Mikala Staples Hughes, to join him in placing this wreath made up of our various products from across our great state at the Tomb— a truly humbling experience.


From these diverse backgrounds and perspectives, each and every one of us challenged one another— and supported one another. Throughout our journey, we’ve had three babies born and two more are on the way, we’ve had two weddings, we’ve had cross state and cross country moves, new jobs, unexpected trials and challenges with health, be it ourselves or for our families. And along the way, we’ve shown up, we’ve given 100% of ourselves, and we’ve developed lifelong friendships.


I wish I could go through our entire class list and tell you about each one of these amazing people. But I’d like to share a couple quick glimpses—


Karen and Jason Sheehan, you are the epitome of leadership. In a valley with deep, deep challenges surrounding the trust – or lack thereof – between government and farmers, you are charting a path for your neighbors and your industry by opening the doors to state agencies and working directly with them to demonstrate how you are genuine stewards of the land. This is of fundamental and lasting consequence for the better.


Jordan, the love you show for the women in your life – your lovely wife and daughters – and the passion you show for serving your community, is contagious. I have no doubt that, because of your example, your daughters are going to grow up to be the next generation of leaders.


I’ve been blessed to get to know all of your families, your spouses and kids, your parents. At the end of the day, we all know this is what’s most important in life. Each of you, with your commitment to your families and your passion to make your community a better place, is an inspiration for me.


To close—

I’m joined tonight by one of my best friends, Meredith Aronson. She was like a big sister to me in high school, and then went on to be my big sister in college when I followed her here to Spokane to attend Gonzaga.


I have a distinct memory as a high schooler of another graduation speech, one that Meredith gave upon her graduation two years ahead of me.


That song “Live Like You Were Dying,” by Tim McGraw was popular at the time, and she took her own spin on the idea. Her advice to her graduating class was not to “Live Like You Were Dying,” but to “Live Like You Were A Child” again. That positive lens with which children see the world; the absolute joy of life and of living; that approach to make the most of every single moment.


In that same vein, a phrase I often like to share with those around me is this: “the best wasn’t yesterday, and the best isn’t yet to come— the best is now.” Surely, we all have positive memories and wonderful experiences of the past to rejoice; and of course, there’s so much goodness ahead and accomplishments to celebrate in the future. But I encourage you to soak up this moment, to live in the present, to enjoy every ounce of the now. We are so blessed to be a part of this incredible cohort, to be surrounded by friends and family and supporters and donors of this organization. I’m so grateful for all of you in this room.


So cheers to you, Class 43, the best is now.