Phone a Friend: How to Talk to Your Legislator About Farming

There's a lot at stake in sustainable agriculture right now, and a phone call to your legislators can actually make a difference.

by Dani Yokhna

The very first session I went to at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference this year was titled “Inside Food & Farm Politics in D.C.” I wanted to pop my eyeballs out with a spoon. It was 9 a.m., and I was missing out on sessions about heritage pork, vegetable-crop diversification, Biodynamic compost and farm-to-school programs. Hearing about politics is the last thing I wanted, but because I am a loyal “News Hog” blogger and know that the information that comes from sessions like this is vital to our understanding of the food system at large, I went.

While the presenters, Sarah Hackney from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and James Robinson from the Rural Advancement Foundation International, were delivering an engaging session (like always—I love going to their conference sessions), I realized how far removed we are from the policy work that takes place in Washington. Every day, someone who knows nothing about what takes place on your farm is making decisions that directly affect your farm. With this fact in mind, you have two options:

  1. Get riled up about some article I write and leave nasty comments, then complain to your friends about how much you hate Hobby Farms.
  2. Contact someone who can make a difference about the actions being taken.

I always encourage you to take the second option and try to leave you with instructions about how to do so. Hackney and Robinson are helping me out this week: After their SSAWG Conference session, they did a short video skit of what it’s like to make a phone call to your legislator. The video is completely unrehearsed—we did it all in the first shot—and it’s only three minutes long. If you’ve never picked up the phone to discuss an issue with your senator or congressperson because you didn’t know how, you no longer have that excuse.

Why a Phone Call?

How to Talk to Your Legislator About Farming - Photo by iStock/Thinkstock ( #newshog #farmpolicy

“The No. 1 most important, best possible thing you can do in 2015 is to call your legislator at least once,” Hackney said during that session. Then she paused and said the top thing would actually be to donate millions of dollars toward the political cause you believe in. Short of that, though, pick up the phone!

A phone call carries so much more weight than something as simple as an online petition. Your legislator knows how easy it is to “sign” your name to a petition online. He also knows how much more time and thought it takes to place a phone call.

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If you don’t make this phone call and someone with an opposing viewpoint does, your legislator isn’t going to know about the range of viewpoints held by people in his district. Points are tallied here, and the side who doesn’t make the phone calls loses.

Your Game Plan

I don’t like talking on the phone. I’m an emailer, for sure. So I before I make a call like this, I scribble some notes. They might look like:

Introduction—I’m a constituent
I want the GMO Right-to-Know Act to get passed:

    • Consumers should be informed about what’s in their food
    • Opens up trade opportunities
    • Industry transparency

Say thanks
Leave contact info

Notes like this help keep you focused, and they prevent you from going down an emotional path, which is so easy to do when we’re dealing with topics that are so close to our homes, health and hearts.

If you have statistics—particularly anything related to the economy and job creation because legislators love that stuff—include them in your message. If you’d like to hear back from your legislator—or more likely a staff member—leave your contact information.

In the video above, a staff member from Senator Jane Smith’s office (we made this up, by the way) answers the phone and has a nice conversation with the farmer who’s calling. You’ll often call a legislator and get his voicemail, which is less intimidating than actually talking to a person, I think. Even when you do end up talking to a person, I can all but guarantee they’ll be polite and patient as long as you are the same. This is what they’re paid for! You are their boss’ constituent, so technically, you are their boss’ boss.

Another thing happening in this video that you might not experience is that Senator Smith’s staffer asks if someone can visit the caller’s farm. Sure, this might happen when you call, but it’s not extremely likely. Rather, if you have an event happening on your farm or with a farming group that you’re involved with, you should extend the invitation to show off how you’re benefiting from (or not benefiting from) government policies or programs. You never know what a good working relationship with your representatives can lead to.

Walking the Walk

Something I appreciate about writing these blog entries and asking you to take action is that I feel I also have to take action. It’s not fair for me to say you should do it and then not do it myself, right? I have left voicemails for my representatives, submitted comments to the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, and talked with friends about how they can do the same. This is not a do-as-I-say kind of blog I’m writing here—I’m doing this with you.

Now, please watch the video! And consider making a few phone calls about subjects that are on the table right now. (GMO labeling, GM mosquitoes and fracking are just a few hot topics.) Your first phone call is your hardest. I swear.

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