Farmers discuss issues with legislators
By Kevin Hecteman
California Farm Bureau Federation board member Brandon Fawaz of Siskiyou County, left, talks to Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, center, as Siskiyou County Farm Bureau board member Jeff Fowle, right, and his son Kyle listen. Farm Bureau members from throughout California visited legislative offices at the state Capitol as part of the annual CFBF Leaders Conference.
Assembly Agriculture Committee Chair Anna Caballero speaks to the CFBF Leaders Conference in Sacramento.
Scores of farmers, ranchers and others with an agricultural interest made the rounds at the state Capitol in Sacramento to discuss a range of legislation with ramifications for how California agriculture does business.
The legislative visits, which focused on topics including employment, transportation, water and wildlife, came last week during the annual California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference.
Chelsea Molina, CFBF political affairs manager, said approximately 100 Farm Bureau members took part, meeting with about 95 legislative members and their staff.
"It's always great to see so many farmers and ranchers take time away from their operations, because they recognize the importance of sharing their story of how policy made in Sacramento affects their farms and ranches all throughout the state," Molina said. "The more we continue to make our voices heard at the Capitol like these leaders did, the more we can make a difference influencing policy."
Those who visited with Assembly members and senators said they found the day to be time well spent.
"I think it's very productive," said Al Stehly, who grows avocados, citrus and winegrapes in northern San Diego County.
Stehly said the sight of farmers in business suits led to some interesting observations.
"One assemblywoman says, 'You don't look like a farmer.' I said, 'I got calluses,'" Stehly said with a laugh. On a more serious note, he added: "It's also good, I think, for us to see that we aren't the only game in town, which we know. There's other people up there doing the same thing we are. We just have to think of new and better ways to do it ourselves."
Hannah Gbeh, who farms garlic and honey near the San Diego County town of Jamul, said she sees a disconnect between agriculture and some of the politicians whose legislation affects farmers.
"They don't understand our issues that we're going through, so it's crucial to have a seat at the table and have these face-to-face conversations," Gbeh said. "They're very receptive once we are able to explain how some of these regulations that are intended for larger corporations are really stifling small businesses in the agricultural community."
Some in Sacramento see that information gap, too, such as Assembly Member Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, who spoke to the Leaders Conference before the Farm Bureau members made their legislative visits.
"It's my feeling that there's this disconnect between urban residents and rural residents, because people don't know where their food comes from," said Caballero, who chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee. "I had someone ask me once if strawberries grow on trees. That's a huge disconnect."
An attorney by trade, Caballero told the conference that, as a business owner, she knows what it's like to be regulated and takes a practical approach to bills.
"If I think that I can't do it, I'm not going to ask anybody else to do it," Caballero said, adding that she wants to address regulations that work at cross purposes.
"It's clear to me and has been over the years that there are different departments that issue rules that, if you follow them to the T, would put you at odds with other departments within the state," she said. "And so I'm very interested in looking at those and making sure that we can fix them."
She wants to hear from farmers who find themselves in this fix.
"If there are situations where you have two regulations and you can't comply with both of them because they're at odds with each other, please let me know," she said. "I want to solve that problem."
She also described agriculture as crucial to the country's safety.
"It's my opinion that the ability for this country to produce its own food is critical to our national security," she said. "The last thing we need is for some country to decide they don't like us for some reason, any reason, and to withhold our food supply."
Caballero praised the farmers and ranchers who took time off work to travel to Sacramento for the conference. Working at the Capitol is all about building relationships, she said.
"I also want to make sure to thank you for your advocacy, because it's not easy to come to Sacramento and get your voices heard," she said. "The more that you're here, the more that you're doing outreach and the more that you're reaching across the aisle, I think the better the product is going to be."
Pierre Sleiman, who grows organic lettuce in Encinitas, said he was encouraged by the visits he made to legislative offices.
"It seems to me that Farm Bureau, its reputation precedes it," Sleiman said. "I think that the strides that we made today were in bridging the disconnect in where we have common goals, and how we can work together."
The Leaders Conference also included meetings of nine CFBF Issue Advisory Committees.
One of them, the Agricultural Labor Issue Advisory Committee, discussed the many employment issues that, as committee chairwoman Janet Kister put it, keep farmers awake at night.
"They had issues with labor availability, immigration reform," Kister said. "They're really anxious for immigration reform to happen, that we have some sort of guestworker program."
Kister, co-owner of a nursery in Fallbrook, cited uncertainties about immigration enforcement and said the committee encourages farmers to be prepared for Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities, including audits of I-9 work-authorization forms.
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.