Commentary: To be an effective advocate, build trust and relationships

Issue Date: December 17, 2014
By Kenny Watkins
Kenny Watkins
Photos/Matt Salvo

Advocacy: It's an active process for a cause or proposal, and that's why we're all here.

Everyone recognizes the need for advocacy. That's why we are Farm Bureau members; that's why we are here participating in our policy process, identifying issues, setting our priorities for advocacy for the next year.

Farm Bureau is an advocacy organization. Our goal is to "promote conditions which will make it possible for farmers to earn a fair return in a manner which will preserve freedom and opportunity." That's straight out of our policy book.

Advocacy comes in many forms. My role as chairman of the board of the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom allows me to interact with board members and supporters from throughout the state who are committed to educating California students about agriculture. The Ag in the Classroom staff works tirelessly, creating curriculum that teachers and volunteers use in the classroom.

The advocacy tool that's worked well for me in order to establish relations, earn credibility and help urbanites understand agriculture is getting them in my truck for a couple of hours—showing them what we do in our operations, in the packing sheds, in our communities, the whys and hows and the new technology. Explaining how past and proposed legislation will affect you, while standing in your field, has impact we can't make over the phone or in a Capitol office.

We cannot let others define our industry or what we do. We have to make the relationships, and tell our story. It's uncomfortable for all of us, but education is the key for agriculture to survive.

In the past, we've had many issues that stand out as lightning rods. Today, water makes our past issues look minor. We need to push for solutions that preserve our freedom and opportunities. For example, we don't have a groundwater problem; we have a surface water problem. What we need to do is capture and distribute surface water to the people who need it.

In the past, when we've needed water, we developed solutions: dams, canals, technology. I know in my area, some of those projects are more than 100 years old. We need to motivate decision-makers to find solutions.

Look back in history and find those stories of solution. Look to the future for opportunities to solve our water needs, and advocate for those solutions.

When we were short on gasoline in the 1970s, we refined more. When we were short on electricity, we created more distribution and generation. We never told a business they couldn't operate in California, or put limits on our population. When the schools were full, we didn't pick which kids could go and which couldn't. Why do they want to do this with water?

We need to educate, by telling those stories of success.

I hope I've given you some ideas and motivation to advocate through education for our industry. Go find those community leaders who make a difference. Tell your story. Get them to your operation. Get them in the dirt. Bring them to your home. Get them at your Farm Bureau meetings.

We have solutions in our sights.

(Kenny Watkins is first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. This commentary is adapted from remarks delivered at the CFBF Annual Meeting.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.