When you’re shucking peas or collecting eggs, agricultural policy and politics is probably the farthest thing from your mind. But however we slice it, everything from the activities of Congress to our county board meetings affect our food system and, ultimately, what’s on our plates. A key ingredient to change in farm policy is making sure your vision for the future is heard.
"The only way to transform our food system is for small farms to have a strong voice in the process and demand their fair share of representation,” says Faye Jones, executive director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. "We need to stand up and connect with our representatives and decision makers on the issues that are important to us, such as stewarding our land and agricultural heritage for generations to come.”
But how exactly do you voice your opinion effectively, especially when you have that pile of peas to shuck and the never-ending list of farm to-do’s? Here are five ideas to get you started:
1. Think federal.
"The Farm Bill and national agriculture policy are generally not designed to support small farmers but rather help continue large-scale corporate and industrialized agriculture,” explains Ariane Lotti, assistant policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an alliance of grassroots nonprofits advocating for agricultural policy reform. "Small family farmers need to voice their opinions directly to elected representatives, or Congress will just assume the status quo and keep passing legislation to help the big guys.”
The NSAC’s weekly free e-newsletter identifies key issues of importance to small farmers, including the right time to call your senator or representative.
"It doesn’t take hundreds of phone calls to affect change,” Lotti says. "A few sincere calls from that representative’s home state or district can go a long way in changing perspectives.”
2. Think local.
Back on the home front, issues of local importance, from zoning to land use, can affect you even more directly than federal farm policy.
"Farmers are in an opportune position to affect change locally because they have existing relationships in their community and either already know the people involved or can readily meet with them face to face and talk things through,” says Steph Larsen, assistant director of organizing at the Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Organizing and Outreach Program in Nebraska. "It’s easier to be casual and frank with state and local officials and to follow up as needed.”
3. Tap group knowledge.
Don’t feel like you need to know everything and be a policy expert to engage with your government representatives: Connect with a local sustainable-agriculture or diversified-family-farm grassroots organization that can help synthesize and educate you on key issues.
"I’m a farmer, not a policy wonk,” says Beth Osmund, of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Ill. "I don’t have time to keep up with and research all these agricultural issues, so I keep connected with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, which wonderfully does that for me and lets me know when key legislation is coming up in my state and background on the issue.”
Osmund participated in a "farmer lobby day” at her state capitol, also organized by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
4. Tell your farm story.
"Remember, your story, your farming experiences, are the key thing to focus on when talking to elected officials,” Lotti advises. "No need to feel the need to know everything about policy. Stick to what you know and you will be a successful farmer spokesperson.”
Remember that most representatives, especially those on Capitol Hill, are disconnected from the farming lifestyle and are looking to you to educate them on what it’s like to run a small-scale, diversified operation. Share why you got into the work you do, as well as your challenges and successes. If meeting your representatives in person, bring photos of your operation for an added personal touch.
5. Be specific in your requests.
"When you come in to talk to your elected officials about an issue, be sure to ask for something specific; what is it exactly that you want them to do,” Larsen recommends. "These folks are busy people, juggling numerous issues and demands, and are looking to you to not only help educate them on issues but to tell them what to do about it.”
This could mean asking for how you want them to vote on specific legislation, a dollar amount you want appropriated to a certain budget category or a new bill you want them to introduce.
An extra bonus of bringing your farmer voice to the table: It’s rewarding and fun. "After I talk to my representatives, I get a rush of satisfaction and a ‘wow’ feeling that I just did something important that could change things,” Osmund says.
Use these resources to help you better connect with your local, state or federal governmental officials.
- National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: The NSAC member list connects you with various local groups in your state, like Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
- Center for Rural Affairs: Works on both small-scale farming issues and sustainable rural economic development
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist calls her representatives from her farm and bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin, Inn Serendipity, which is completely powered by the wind and sun. She is also the co-author of Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011) and Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers. 2009).