Deborah Hamlin, CAE, FASAE, retired as the CEO of the Irrigation Association at the end of 2021. As she ended her tenure after over 15 years at the IA, Hamlin reflected on her years with the association and what she sees coming ahead in the future.
One of the most impactful changes we made to the association was when I first started. In 2007, we simplified the association’s mission to: to promote efficient irrigation. Those words drive everything we do, and it’s so simple that all of our members know it. Another win has been upping our game with certification and education. We offer more today than ever before, including online education. (Yes, we were doing it before COVID!) We continue to evolve into a more professional organization and our materials show it. Taking on two magazines — one for ag and one for landscape — was quite an undertaking, but it helps us educate our followers and allows us to share the news of the great things our member companies are doing.
We have also tried many things that didn’t go as well as expected, and we logged those as experiments and moved on. The IA Board of Directors has been incredibly forward-thinking and open-minded to try new things to help serve this industry. As the top staff person, I truly appreciate their innovative ideas and mentorship on these initiatives.
The most significant changes are certainly around technology — such as operating everything from massive farm systems to home sprinklers from our phones. I continue to be amazed by the new technology that is churned out by this industry each year. New ways of sensing and measuring, all to water more efficiently. From the tiniest emitters to large center pivots, products and systems are improving. They are not only using water more efficiently but they are saving energy as well. We have also developed nontraditional relationships outside of our community with NGOs, the Environmental Protection Agency and water providers to help accomplish our goals.
For the most part, the IA faces challenges when our member companies face challenges. In 2008 through 2011 the landscape segment suffered through the economic recession, but ag remained strong. Later, commodity prices dropped, and the ag irrigation segment suffered. I was always thankful for that balance; usually when one segment was struggling, the other was doing well. When our members experience hard times, we see dips in renewing memberships and trade show attendance. Certainly the toughest time in my entire career was and continues to be the COVID-19 pandemic. Though I believe we are through the worst of it, staffing shortages and supply chain hurdles continue. Associations traditionally rely heavily on in-person events for revenue (trade shows, education classes, in-person testing), and the shutdown was particularly crushing to the IA’s budget. The good news is that in 2021, we saw returning interest in and income from these programs.
In agriculture, one thing that hasn’t changed is solving the problem of market acceptance. For instance, how can the association help the industry in demonstrating the return on investment for a pressurized irrigation system? And, on the landscape side, how do we get homeowners and building managers to care, when the price of water isn’t an incentive in the vast majority of our states? On top of that, there are regulations, legislation, standards and codes, from municipalities to international organizations, that impact our industry. You can imagine how difficult it can be to follow all of this activity. These are challenges that may be too big for the IA to take on alone, but there are still many ways to move that needle. The opportunities are endless. New technologies are being developed daily that make irrigation systems more efficient and easier to manage. And data is being embraced by a much larger audience than in the past. Certainly with increasing demands on water, all eyes will be on irrigation, and it’s our time to shine.
When I first learned about the position at the IA 15 years ago, the phrase “water conservation through efficient irrigation” was on the website. That really drew me in. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to support an industry that is so important to society. Growing the food needed for this country and beyond would not be possible without irrigation and our industry. That makes you feel pretty good to be a part of that effort. But what I will look back on most fondly were the people that I worked with along the way. This association and industry are full of smart folks who are committed to our mission of promoting efficient irrigation. With champions like that, the IA is sure to continue to prosper, even through tough times in the future.
What I will look back on most fondly were the people that I worked with along the way. This association and industry are full of smart folks who are committed to our mission of promoting efficient irrigation.