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Farmers adapt to virtual advocacy with legislators

Issue Date: April 7, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman
With the state Capitol remaining closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, Farm Bureau members conducted legislative visits via video conference during the Capitol AG Day event.
Photo/Dave Kranz

Screen time replaced face time as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced Farm Bureau members to conduct their Capitol AG Day visits with state legislators virtually.

"Let's hope this is the last virtual AG Day that we'll have, and the last virtual meeting when we should all be together," California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said in the day's opening remarks.

The virtual Capitol AG Day program—AG is an acronym for "advocacy" and "grassroots"—featured appearances by legislative and administration leaders (see related story), followed by video conference meetings between Farm Bureau members and legislators.

"One thing never changes, and that's that our voice has to continue to be heard," Johansson said. "As president of California Farm Bureau, I'm happy to be sharing those voices—even if sometimes it has to be on Zoom or on conference calls."

Shannon Douglass, who raises cattle and row crops in Glenn County and serves as California Farm Bureau first vice president, described the virtual program as "definitely a different day."

"We miss seeing not only our fellow Farm Bureau members in person, but also our elected officials in person, because there is so much value in that face-to-face contact," Douglass said.

That said, she added, "considering we've been so limited in doing that the last year, I think this was a really good option to have that connection and work with all of the COVID restrictions."

About 135 Farm Bureau members took part in the virtual visits, said Mike Zimmerman, California Farm Bureau political affairs manager.

"Despite the challenges of meeting virtually, our members were able to share their personal stories with their elected officials and put a face to the work that is being done every day," Zimmerman said.

Joe Sansoni, an almond farmer and first vice president of the Merced County Farm Bureau, described the virtual Capitol AG Day as "a positive experience overall."

"The virtual platform is the next best thing, obviously," Sansoni said, "but we'd like to be able to sit down with the legislators or their representatives in person. It seems to be a little bit different and a little bit more of an intimate setting when you're in person, and you get a chance to maybe crack issues open a little bit more than on the virtual platform."

Even so, Sansoni said he found the virtual meetings valuable.

"I feel like it's still important to reach out and to make these kinds of connections, and make sure that they know that we're still working on the issues," he said. "We're not just going to go away just because it's a little bit tougher to get in touch with people."

The COVID-19 pandemic, especially the need to vaccinate agricultural employees, was a top issue for many Farm Bureau members.

"It seems like with the COVID vaccinations, there is so much difference county to county in how the local health agencies are making those things happen," Douglass said.

Sansoni, who took part in a meeting with the office of Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, where vaccination efforts were discussed, noted that "I think they're very concerned about it."

In addition to vaccines, water and employment regulations were Sansoni's primary concerns.

"I'm a very small employer," he said. "I'm not subjected to a lot of the more stringent regulation yet."

Sansoni said he'd like to see a viable guestworker program put together with help from state officials.

One of Douglass' meetings was with Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, whose family is involved in farming.

"Even though he's certainly very friendly to ag, he still has a ton of issues that he has to look at," she said. "We know he's very busy. Even for someone like him who does know our issues so well, who has those farm ties still with their family, knowing what's happening in our different counties is still critical."

Douglass said the pandemic has not diminished the importance of Farm Bureau members making themselves heard in the halls of the Legislature.

"We remain a real small percentage of the population, and so it's ever critical that we have this continuous contact with our elected officials, so that they understand our issues and what's happening on our farms," she said. "If we aren't sharing that story, they're not hearing it."

Sansoni said he looks forward to some normality in 2022.

"I appreciate the fact that the legislators were willing to continue to work with us and actually have the Capitol AG Day, even though it wasn't able to be in person," he said. "Hopefully, next year we'll be able to do it in person."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He can be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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




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