May 14, 2012
Advocacy Must Engage the CongregationBy Bob Stallman
Farm Bureau’s brand of advocacy has been a key part of my entire adult life. I first got involved with the organization when I was relatively young and was having problems with the state of Texas over water rights on my farm. I traveled to a committee hearing in Austin – the first time I’d been to a hearing and the first time I’d been to the state capitol – and met Farm Bureau representatives testifying on behalf of landowners’ water rights. I realized then and there that they were advocating for me and my rights.
When I got home, I took a deliberate step to become involved in my home county Farm Bureau in Colorado County, Texas. I saw first-hand that farmers and ranchers have to be the ones to stand up for agriculture to influence decisions that affect us, otherwise plenty of other people would be more than happy to make those decisions for us. Now, I can’t imagine my life if that hearing in Austin had never happened.
Since those early days at the Colorado County Farm Bureau, I’ve been blessed to travel our great nation, and the world on behalf of Farm Bureau members. From the formality of congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, to the international flavor of world trade negotiations, I still feel most comfortable and at home when I’m headed down a country highway to a friendly, local school cafeteria for a county Farm Bureau meeting. The grassroots level is where all true agricultural advocacy begins.
As I hear the voices and soak in the energy from these grassroots Farm Bureau meetings, it gives me a personal connection to the issues I deal with. Most of the time what they have to say is good, some of the time it’s not. That’s the beauty of Farm Bureau, there’s always room for healthy debate. But in all of my travels, I have never met a farmer without something to say, or more importantly, not willing to get involved to help further our grassroots process. It’s this commitment of our grassroots members who play an active role in U.S. agriculture policymaking that makes Farm Bureau one of the most successful advocacy organizations in this nation.
As Farm Bureau members, it is ingrained in us to be actively involved and to fight for what we believe in and for what we think will better our profession and our country. We are not ones to rest on our laurels while others do the work. We are also not the types to make a lot of noise about an issue and stop there. Farm Bureau members roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty when it comes to matters that are close to our hearts.
They talk to their neighbors and other members of their community. And they share their personal stories through many platforms, traditional and new.
This, to me, is what advocacy is all about.
But, it doesn’t stop there. The future of upholding agriculture lies in farmers and ranchers being able to communicate in an even deeper and more meaningful way with consumers. We are being asked to fully take in the consumer point of view. We are being asked to answer questions in a meaningful and responsive way. Times are changing. Consumers have not only grown more interested – but have greater influence – in the type of food they consume and how it is produced.
Unfortunately, without the cultivation of deeper connections with consumers, many are apt to view farmers as the unfortunate puppets of Big Ag, because that is pretty much the scope of the emotionally charged messages they read and hear from those planting seeds of doubt about today’s agriculture. It truly is time for a consumer intervention, but one that makes significant and meaningful connections through the qualities of shared values, mutual respect and common ground. The two-way conversation needs to become a connection built on a foundation of understanding and ideals.
I’ve learned many things in my agriculture career. For instance, it never rains when you need it to and there will always be more taxes. More importantly, I’ve learned that farmers and ranchers are the best advocates for their land, their animals and the food they produce. But to be our best advocates, we have to stop preaching to the choir and engage the congregation. It may not be easy and it may not always be comfortable, but it is the best way to ensure the future of those who follow in our chosen profession of agriculture.
Bob Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Columbus, Texas, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.