Ag Advocacy Needed to Make Legislative Impact

Lancaster Farming 12/29/12 LITITZ, Pa.

Agriculture has struggled in the halls of Harrisburg and Washington to make its voice heard over the din of other political interests.

However, the power of effective agricultural advocacy can still make a difference, Mike Pechart, deputy state agriculture secretary said last week during the Lancaster County Agricultural Council meeting at Oregon Dairy. Agricultural lobbyist Mike Oscar also spoke at the meeting.

Pechart said he sees the impact of advocacy every day at the Department of Agriculture. For instance, farmers effectively lobbied the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Corbett to pass an agriculture transportation reform bill, which clarified the confusion caused by antiquated laws that did not account for modern agricultural machinery.

Another example is dog law. Pechart, who was a part of the department’s team in the Rendell administration, said dog law was a hot topic for six years as “public perception changed ... and it completely changed an industry.”

Six years ago, there were more than 353 commercially licensed dog kennels in the state. A public outcry reacting to a couple of “bad actor” kennels resulted in several law changes in 2008, leaving only 51 in the state today.

“Advocacy does work,” Pechart said. “If you want to advocate and do it the right way, you will get change.”

Farmers need to “advocate for changes to reflect modern agriculture. Ag has changed, but the laws did not,” Pechart said. Most state agricultural regulations were written in the 1950s and ’60s, some are from the 1940s.

Oscar echoed Pechart’s comments, saying “ag as an issue is emerging and changing.”

Oscar said he is not surprised that the federal Farm Bill was not passed in this lame duck session. Over the past 40 years, only once has Congress passed a Farm Bill during this time.

“We are acres apart” he said, pointing to those in the House who want to cut food stamp programs, while others do not. As fiscal cliff talks continue, there is even talk about cutting funding for crop insurance programs.

To top it off, there is a “dairy cliff” of sorts pending without the passage of the Farm Bill. Milk will increase to $6 to $7 a gallon in the store, or $39 per hundredweight on Jan. 1 based on the 1949 permanent Farm Bill, if a new bill or extension of the current Farm Bill is not passed.

The solution to these issues and others will have to come from congressional action. Farmers elected to Congress are not a common sight on Capitol Hill anymore. Oscar told the council members, “You need members to raise their profile at the appropriate time” to educate lawmakers on policy decisions.

When he is lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of an agricultural organization, Oscar said, a common reply from these nonfarm congressmen is that they will vote the way their agricultural member will vote.

Farmers need to engage their local legislators on key issues explaining how their vote can affect their constituents.

Oscar said it is also important to have a request when speaking to legislator, not to just stop in and visit.

He also said farmers need to find commonality where they can on issues. For example, Oscar predicts immigration will be on the agenda for the Obama administration.

New York dairy, apple and vegetable growers had a meeting recently to discuss the topic, agreeing that immigration reforms should focus on keeping a sustainable migrant workforce, while recognizing that H-2A programs do not fit the needs for dairy farmers.

The agricultural council also presented service awards to several members for work on key council projects. They were Scott Sheely, Dan Heller and Mike Pechart.

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