As the world transitioned to a virtual existence in 2020, agricultural organizations had to get creative to carry out their usual advocacy efforts.
While they hope to return to face-to-face interactions in the near future, there is no denying the COVID-19 pandemic has forced agricultural organizations to adapt and find the benefits of virtual communication.
Though means of communication have changed even more rapidly in the last year, the main challenge remains the same – how to get producers access to the tools they need to keep the global population fed and clothed.
Lubbock-based commodity organizations, National Sorghum Producers and Plains Cotton Growers Inc., each had to adapt to this new virtual environment to ensure they maintained their important relationships with policy makers in Washington, D.C., and Austin.
How did these technology-savvy agriculturists adjust to meet society’s new standard of communication?
Sorghum’s Virtual Fly-In
Haleigh Erramouspe, NSP communication coordinator, was responsible for organizing the organization’s annual D.C. fly-in in early March, which would normally involve taking sorghum farmers from across the country to our nation’s capital to advocate for the sorghum industry. However, travel restrictions and limited access to in-person meetings in D.C. meant the entire event had to take place online.
Despite this new method of communication, Erramouspe said the virtual meetings allowed NSP to meet with more congressional members than they normally would during an in-person fly-in.
“It would have been strange to even think about a Skype meeting with a congressman before,” Erramouspe said. “It wouldn’t have been an option before this new technology was introduced to us.”
With a new administration in the White House and many freshmen in Congress, Erramouspe, who also planned the in-person fly-in for NSP at the beginning of 2020, said initiating contact with new members would be important for NSP to build relationships. Thankfully, this was not her first rodeo, but the 2021 virtual fly-in was comparable to English show jumping.
Erramouspe knew NSP needed to adapt to meet the new circumstances. That meant overcoming poor internet connection, making sure everyone had access to the new technology, and correcting mechanical errors. By following several other organizations’ approaches, she planned 57 Zoom meetings that took place over four days. Despite initial concerns for farmers meeting virtually from rural areas, Erramouspe said it seemed to flow smoothly.
At the end of the day, you can’t beat a handshake on the Hill, but virtual communication allowed us to keep up our efforts.”HALEIGH ERRAMOUSPE
“Most of our board members were fairly comfortable using the technology since that is what they had already been utilizing to conduct board meetings,” Erramouspe said. “However, we still did an overview before the big run.”
Michael Conaway, former representative of TX-11 and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, stressed the importance of agricultural groups gaining the representatives’ trust. As a Congress member, he was more apt to support causes brought up by groups he had an established relationship with because reliance and faith were more present.
“If I knew them ahead of time, it was easier to accomplish what needed to be done,” Conaway said.
Establishing such relationships was precisely what NSP focused on during their virtual fly-in in March. A main concern, Erramouspe said, was getting to know someone without physically being around them. However, the virtual meetings may have been a blessing in disguise.
NSP’s virtual fly-in occurred during the historic polar vortex that consumed much of the country in late February. If the fly-in would have included the normal plane travel necessary to get farmers to D.C., it would have taken many away from their farming operations during a costly natural disaster.
During one of their virtual meetings, Erramouspe said a producer was drying off a newborn calf in his lap to keep it warm while talking to representatives about markets.
“You can’t have that kind of experience when you’re meeting with [members] in Washington D.C.,” Erramouspe explained. “It gave us an opportunity to let those members of Congress see what’s happening on a ground level for our producers.”
Similarly, producers saw representatives in a more natural setting instead of their statelier Congressional offices in D.C. Erramouspe said Rep. Frank Lucas, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee from 2011 to 2015, was relaxing in his recliner during his virtual meeting with NSP board members and producers. Lucas’ wife even decided to pop in and say “hello.”
“A regular visit to the Capitol could be very intimidating to most, so it was a nice change of pace for the producers to see the representatives in a more similar environment to their own,” Erramouspe said.
Where PCG had similar tactics in approaching their congressmen, they got off to a different start than NSP.
Getting Personable In-Person
Kody Bessent, vice president of operations and legislative affairs at Plains Cotton Growers Inc., has years of experience representing agricultural organizations in Washington, D.C. Bessent said where there are obvious challenges in operating virtually, you can now meet with officials without having to plan travel.
Like Erramouspe, Bessent agrees it is important to not waste time in forming relationships with new members. Fortunately, PCG got to meet with Rep. Pfluger, a new member from TX-11 in PCG’s Lubbock office. The in-person meeting helped them form a more personable relationship.
“It’s important for them to learn more about industry segments they’re unfamiliar with,” he said, “and for us to establish rapport and relationships.”
Yasmin Rey, legislative director for Texas Rep. John Frullo, works closely with Bessent. PCG complimented their ability to not only initiate relationships, but maintain them, even when the Texas Legislature isn’t in session.
As the former congressional and policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rey said planning virtual meetings with representatives yields a lot more success as you only maneuver through buttons rather than the Capitol tunnels.
“Everyone wants a seat at the table,” Rey said, “It’s easier to do that now with the increase in technology.”
If you’ve been to Washington, D.C., in 2021, you know how difficult it is to get close to the Capitol, nevertheless, inside it. Rey recalled the atmosphere in D.C. being a different kind of busy and said even though D.C. has a lot going on, most staffers are just starting to come back to work in the offices versus at home.
Virtual Hill Handshakes
Bessent realized the societal transformation caused by COVID-19 when PCG conducted a virtual meeting with Sen. John Cornyn, and one of their producers Zoomed in from a tractor.
“My dad made this joke a long time ago that I’ve never forgotten,” Bessent said. “He said one day we’d really be like the Jetsons, and today we’re there.”
Despite the costs of updating these commodity group’s technology, Erramouspe and Bessent agreed they would continue to utilize virtual communication even after the pandemic.
“Our people are boots on the ground people,” Erramouspe said. “At the end of the day, it’s just crucial to get their voice on the Hill.”
Despite the convenience of meeting virtually, Conaway said it will still be important for agricultural organizations to meet members in-person when that becomes an option, but virtual meetings with a smaller number of people is a great way to stay in touch.
“If there’s only two or three of you on the call, you can have a bit more of a free flow conversation,” he said.
Are virtual meetings here to stay for commodity associations?
“At the end of the day, you can’t beat a handshake on the Hill,” Erramouspe said, “but virtual communication has allowed us to keep up our efforts without missing a beat.”