Lindsay and I spent the week in Seattle with members of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation for the 91st annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau. While members were recognized for their achievements in the organization, most notably with Ohio receiving the Pinnacle Award from AFBF for the second year in a row, the cornerstone of the AFBF gathering each January is the development of the organization’s policies for the ensuing year.
Like the meeting of the Ohio Farm Bureau in December, and of each county farm bureau organization across the country in the fall, agricultural policy is developed in the farm bureau system in the most grassroots fashion. Members discuss issues facing agriculture in the county farm bureau through policy development committees and meetings, and each year a current set of policies are debated, amended, and adopted. For example, in years past members have discussed issues ranging from line fence law, to the overpopulation of whitetail deer, to the burden of the estate tax on farms and agribusinesses.
At each level, the members adopt the policies that they will use in their organization, and then forward policies or recommendations on to delegates to the next “level.” Delegates from the several counties set policy at the state level, and 359 delegates adopted the AFBF policy book over two days this week.
Likewise, I serve on the board of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, and we are evaluating and altering our policies for the coming year. Members of the board, with input from members from our own districts, will make recommendations to maintain, amend, or drop various policies from our organization. At our annual meeting later this month, members will vote on our recommendations. While some policies have been in place for many years, others are integral to the association for only a year or two, as current events may change, and circumstances may dictate re-evaluating a given position.
Some policies focus on the governance and operation of the organization, but the great majority of policies adopted in these and several other relevant agricultural organizations serve as a set of guideposts for the elected leaders and paid staff to follow in advocacy efforts throughout the year. For many organizations, for example, this year will include a focus on climate change legislation, or the current situation with the death tax. While some groups have long established policies on these issues, others will examine them for perhaps the first time. The policies members develop and approve will then tell board and staff members how to handle a given situation in that policy area. Do the members support repeal of the death tax? Do they favor a cap and trade system for carbon emissions?
I’ve heard various agricultural leaders refer to these policies as a group’s “marching orders” from the membership. Because organizations in the farm arena are successful because of the strength of their membership, the elected leadership relies on the grassroots policy process to insure the group’s actions are indeed the will of the members. Likewise, when lobbying members of the state or federal legislature, those politicians know a farmer or policy specialist representing the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association know they are hearing not just from a single farmer, but from thousands of beef producers across the state. When Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, testifies before Congress, the representatives know more 6 million farm and ranch families back him across the nation.
There is strength in numbers, and there is power in an effective policy process.
Likewise, a single member has real power because of, not in spite of, a good grassroots policy structure. By learning about policy issues facing the industry, and by engaging in those policy development efforts at the local, state and national levels, a farmer can have a very real and significant voice in the future of his organization.
Policy is more important now than ever before, and while many of us may prefer to keep politics as one of those things best kept out of polite conversation, ignorance of policies affecting agriculture is no longer an option.