James Wedel’s alarm goes off at 5 A.M. Grabbing a cup of coffee and a newspaper he gets ready to begin his day. However, instead of donning his traditional jeans and work boots, today he will put on his suit and tie to trek the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. on behalf of Texas agriculture. Over the next four days, he will face a grueling schedule of back-to-back meetings for 10 to 12 straight hours. Wedel will walk countless miles on the Hill before his job is done, but when it is over his testimony will help shape American agricultural policy for future generations.
Farmers Fight on the Hill
James Wedel operates a 2500-acre organic corn and cotton farm in Muleshoe, Texas and has been involved in the Corn Producers Association of Texas since 1997. Joe Reed, another long-standing CPAT board member, from Kress, Texas is also an agricultural policy veteran. Dee Vaughan a corn farmer from Dumas, Texas has been involved with CPAT and other organizations like it for decades. Each of these men has served many years on the CPAT board of directors and made countless trips to Washington D.C. on behalf of the Corn Producers Association of Texas.
Approximately every five years, the American government goes through the rigorous process of passing new agricultural policy in an omnibus piece of legislation often referred to as the farm bill. The first farm bill was passed in 1933 and has since developed a more consistent passing rate in recent decades. This monumental piece of legislation often shapes American agriculture years and decades after specific sections are enacted.
Reed remembers a time when farm bills and trips to the Hill were scarce for most farmers. Reed said he started making regular trips once farm bills began to be passed on every four years or so because he saw how much they affected his livelihood. Once he realized he could make a large impact by telling his personal story to legislators and their staff, advocacy became another vital part of his farming operation.
“My theory has always been they work for us we don’t work for them, and if they don’t hear from their constituents they don’t know what’s going on,” Reed said.
For many Texas farmers, agriculture and politics have an intertwining relationship. Vaughan has been involved in shaping both state and national ag policy since 1989 both as a CPAT board member and as the former president of both the National Corn Growers Association and the Southwest Council of Agribusiness. The next farm bill will be the fifth legislative piece of its kind he has worked on.
“One thing is certain, public policy is rarely boring,” Vaughan said. “Just when you think not much is happening, policy issues you never expected will come front and center.”
Preparing farmers for visits to the Hill is a tedious process. It can often take months or years of debate and discussion for agricultural organizations to develop a stance on specific issues to take to representatives. Farmers serving on the CPAT board of directors work with association staff to build talking points and topics for the year through a series of regional and state meetings listening to members’ policy questions and concerns for the upcoming year. Farmers and association staff also work with other state corn groups though NCGA’s National Corn Congress to develop policy plans on a national level.
Texas agricultural advocates often have a very different experience in D.C. relative to other states. While farmers from the Midwest and Northeast often have one specific issue or crop they are lobbying for, Texans have a whole host of issues and crops they are advocating for. Wedel said most of the time in D.C. farmers are lobbying for the good of every farmer in Texas regardless of the crops they grow because they all have such diverse agricultural operations.
Visiting the Hill can often feel like a long and grueling process for those who are not accustomed to the rigorous schedule. Members of the Texas corn delegation try to make the most of visits to D.C. by meeting with as many Texas legislators as possible, as well as the chairmen and members of both the House and Senate agriculture committees.
Sometimes farmers are in the midst of planting or harvest when they are called upon to make the trip to D.C. However, both Reed and Wedel have stressed the importance of farmers sharing their stories with legislators and their staffs.
“A favorable farm bill to agriculture could not get written without the commodity groups that go up there and tell Congress what they want and what they need and have that relationship with them,” Wedel said.
One thing is certain public policy is rarely boring.
Commodity Group Assistance
Famer led commodity groups like CPAT allow farmers from across the state advocate for their livelihoods in Washington, D.C. Angie Martin, the industry affairs director, said growers must also advocate for themselves when visiting with representatives.
“It’s important that we have farmers go to Washington and that it is a diverse group because staffers and legislators want to hear from them,” Martin said. “Our agricultural defenders need to be able to show that farming is not a dying field and that it is alive and growing.”
One of the biggest ways commodity groups equip their members to advocate on the Hill is through training. As active members in commodity associations, farmers gain leadership experience and media training to further prepare them to articulate their farm needs to key decision makers. Reed said training is necessary to make a trip to Washington D.C. successful.
“It is important to know your issues and be prepared to present it succinctly and fluently,” Vaughan said. “If you want to maintain your credibility as a reliable source of information, never try to stumble through an answer.”
Although farmers visit D.C. to speak to legislators about specific issues they face at home, a large portion of their time is often spent educating legislators and their staffs about agriculture in general. Reed said because people have become so removed from agriculture, it can make it difficult to work on a technical legislation like the farm bill when they don’t understand the principle issue to begin with. Farmers go to the Hill to fight for policy that is critical to the future of their businesses and livelihoods. As Martin said, without a strong agricultural economy, rural communities do not survive.
“In a rural community everything is tied to agriculture,” Martin said. “Even your local hospital. It is critical that we have good farm policy to allow our rural communities to continue and thrive.”
Future of Farmers Advocating on the Hill
Reed, Vaughan and Wedel have all made countless trips to D.C. over the years, and are aware of the hard work, sacrifice and effort required to write a farm bill. They all hope future generations of farmers and ranchers understand the importance of agricultural advocacy and take their own journeys to trek the halls of the Hill to advocate for Texas agriculture.
“It’s really easy to do once you’re there, Wedel said.” As far as telling your story, that part is easy, you just tell them about what’s affecting you on the farm.”
Sixteen hours and 15 meetings later, Wedel finally begins to walk back to his hotel room at 9 p.m. He and his colleges have just finished a quick dinner to recount the day and regroup for their next round of meetings tomorrow. His feet and body are aching after spending all day on concrete, but he knows that this job is important and that his hard work has helped shape the lives of farmers across the nation and for that, the walk was worth it.