NORTH American farmers and their lobby groups face an almost identical political minefield to their Australian counterparts, one that’s underpinned by a growing rural and urban divide.
Washington Farm Bureau first vice president Aaron Golladay lives on a family run farming operation in central Washington State, near Warden, about 300 kilometres from the capital Seattle.
In summarising the typical United States political scenario, Mr Golladay said Seattle and its immediate surroundings accounted for about 60 to 70 per cent of the State’s residents, who successfully vote in a bloc, depending on the issue.
He said, overall, a large portion of the urban vote controls what goes on in Washington State.
But he said the depth of understanding about food production and farming realities tends to dangerously diminish the further you travel away from major metropolitan centres.
That means US farmers need a strong lobby to forcefully counteract ongoing policy threats and business disruptions, he said.
“Not only do they have majority control of the legislature, those urban voters struggle to understand the reality of farming and I don’t think they want to,” he said.
“The other side of telling our story about farming is; how do you tell your story to somebody who doesn’t want to hear your story?”
Mr Golladay said getting urban voters and politicians to understand key facts and issues around modern primary production, like animal welfare, property rights, seasonal challenges, plant biotechnology or water policy, was an ongoing dilemma.
“The biggest hurdle I see for us farmers telling our story is that we’re using facts and the other side of these arguments is using emotion,” he said.
“And they don’t have to use real facts to get the emotions going and influence the argument, and that’s a tough, tough battle to fight.
“Social media is a great tool for telling our story; I won’t disagree with that.
“But I could sit on social media and tell the truth all day long and somebody else can go onto social media and get a huge following really quickly by not telling the truth and only telling an emotional story.
“When things get bad, farmers here just drop our heads and work harder,” he said.
“We don’t cry and whine or do whatever; we just work harder because the harder we work the better chance we have to succeed.
“But that’s not going to work with the public today.
“We’ve got to be emotional in telling our story.”
Trust in farmers
Polling conducted around a recent vote, which failed to legislate compulsory labelling of biotechnology products in Washington, produced some heartening results, Mr Golladay said.
The survey showed 70pc of the population ‘trusts a farmer’, he said.
“When I heard that stat I couldn’t believe they trust us that much,” he said.
But he said that high level of trust can’t be taken for granted and farmers need to continue increasing transparency levels, from the farmgate to the consumer.
One of the most successful programs being run in Washington to try and overcome the urban-rural divide is the Adopt-A-Legislator program, run by individual country Farm Bureaus, he said.
Mr Golladay said the program involved an informal on-farm exchange of ideas and information, between State or federal politicians and actual farmers.
“This program has done more for us farmers in the legislative arena than anything else,” he said.
“The legislators come out and visit the farms, drive around in the tractor and see first-hand how things work on the farm, or discuss the finer details of a particular issue.
“If nothing else, you get a good one-on-one relationship with someone who is involved in making these decisions, but may not otherwise know much about what’s going on.”
Adopt a farmer
To help attack similar issues with the growing urban-rural divide, Oregon Farm Bureau public policy vice president Katie Fast said the local agribusiness council runs a program that involved school classes 'adopting a farmer', to help learn about the realities of modern food production, first-hand.
Ms Fast said the school groups visited and toured the farms and then the farmers reciprocated by visiting the classrooms several times a year to run an educational program.
She said the education included a science-based program which had an agricultural focus, such as showing the students how plants are grown.
“Those are very positive programs,” she said.
“I’ve been shocked by how many farmers have stepped up to do the adopt a farmer program.
“Many of our members are participating, including helping the schools pay for the bus for the trip.
“It’s a very exciting program and we’re also organising a tour for our legislators.”
Problem of cheap food
Mr Golladay believes one of the key issues facing farm sustainability is the plentiful supply of cheap food in the US “and that’s the way the government wants it”.
“Let’s be honest, people who are eating are happy people and they don’t want to start a coup on anybody,” he said.
He said consumers are demanding higher ethical standards around food production but also engaging in subversive activism to drive on-farm costs higher, but they can’t have it both ways.
“The European way is to say: ‘We’ll pay a high price and live with paying that higher price but in return we want the freshest and best quality’,” he said.
“What the American public has to start figuring out is that if they want non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), I’ll grow non-GMO, but they’ve got to pay me more to grow it because I’m not going to get the extra yields and the all-round benefits I do from using GMO.
“And science tells me there’s no difference between the two plants, so consumers should pay me more to do something that isn’t as profitable on-farm.”
Mr Golladay said until “urban folk” experienced a genuine food shortage, they would be unable to empathise properly with the ongoing plight of farmers.
“The first time these people don’t have food on the shelf, I think then we will have their attention,” he said.
“It is possible to see that in my lifetime – a crisis in production.
“We have cheap food and when you get something so cheap you don’t think twice about it and that’s part of the storytelling.
“How do you make someone care who’s getting something on the cheap?
“They don’t lock things together until something hits them in the pocketbook (personal financial planner),” he said.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the world but Americans tend to think with their pocketbook.”
Mr Golladay said one area where farmers could potentially gain renewed respect from urban consumers and voters was the recent legalisation of recreational marijuana use, in Washington State, for sale in licensed retail stores.
“Seattle loves it and rest of the State hates it,” he said.
“But agriculture jokes about it when we get together in our meetings, saying this is a great way to communicate with the urban side of the equation.
“This is something they care about and it isn’t cheap, so they listen.
“Now I want the cannabis grower in my meetings with me.
“I want him to have to deal with the department of ecology and all of their water quality BS and deal with the Department of Agriculture about what’s legal to spray or not.”
Ms Fast said acts of 'eco terrorism' were a growing concern on the US west coast, including protests that focussed on forestry, chemical use in farm production and biotechnology.
She said much of the Bureau’s time was spent trying to counter the activists’ efforts at the State’s legislator - but the general public “just gets disgusted with them because it’s people who are anti-anything”.
“I believe a lot of them just jump from cause to cause, but with that being said, these groups are also well organised and continue to be active,” she said.
“A big part of our time is just maintaining our members’ ability to maintain different technologies and to be able to farm in an efficient manner.”
However, Ms Fast said recent polling also showed the general public’s attitude towards farmers was “very positive”.
“They’re a well-respected segment of the population, well trusted and people really like the family farm,” she said.
Ms Fast said a small number of Bureau’s members do use social media but the average Oregon farmer was 60 years old and was unlikely to use Facebook or Twitter.
“Some of our younger folks are getting engaged and telling their story but it’s only a small number,” she said.
California: 'Everybody eats'
California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) communications/news division manager Dave Kranz said his group was very effective at lobbying for farmers in State and federal parliaments.
He said positive results were achieved despite the fact farmers are a very small proportion of the total population.
“Now in California, less than one per cent of the population is a farmer or a rancher,” he said.
“So we have been very conscious of making the case to our farm representatives why it’s important to maintain sustainable farming and ranching in California because not very many people farm but everybody eats.”
Mr Kranz said a “very robust” local food movement existed in the US which started in California making people increasingly conscious of where their food comes from and how it’s grown.
He said issues around ethical food production tend to surface in California a lot earlier than other parts of the country, due to the State’s rich history of social movement, and “spread eastwards”.
Mr Kranz said the Bureau strived to make people understand that sustainable, profitable food production was only possible with the right policies in place and resources available to farmers.
“It’s a big change from earlier years when so much more of the population was either on the farm or lived in rural areas, or their parents or grandparents farmed,” he said.
“Now people are more remote from that; which complicates things a little bit.
“But we’ve been quite successful, I think, in recognising that for everybody it’s in their best interests if farmers can continue to farm successfully.”
Mr Kranz said many Californian farmers were situated on the edge of large capital cities and understood that natural “tension” between consumers and producers.
He said they saw that scenario as part of the farming landscape, - but also understood the benefits of having close access to large domestic markets.
“Farmers operate here under a lot more stringent requirements than they do in other States,” he said.
“That’s something farmers get annoyed about but that’s also one of the main reasons they join the Farm Bureau here in California, for the advocacy that we provide both with elected officials but also regulatory agencies to represent their interests.
“We try to make those regulations as reasonable as possible, so government agencies can achieve their goals without making life too hard for ranchers.”
Social media challenges
CFBF federal policy division director Ria de Grassi said it was difficult to “characterise” whether the rapid increase in social media use over the past decade had contributed to the growing urban-rural divide.
But she said in many respects, agricultural stakeholders have done “a fine job” on social media, reaching out and explaining their stories, to consumers and others.
However, she in the past many farmers have said: ‘No that’s not my job; just let me do my production thing and someone else can be the spokesperson’.
“Many young people - and in agriculture in this country the average age of a farmer is more than 57 years of age, so when I say young - anyone from 20 to 45 or more - are engaging more actively, willingly and effectively than when I first started working here more than 25 years ago,” she said.
“But our population is growing so there are more people who have no idea where their food comes from.
“Even when people elected to public office gain an appreciation of where their food comes from, and how the system works and so forth, they eventually retire and move on or whatever.
“So new effort always has to be made to keep up with the change of faces and continually build understanding and awareness of agriculture in our public policy-making bodies.”
Taking elected officials out to see how farming and food production operated first-hand, remained one of the most effective methods of education and lobbying, according to Ms de Grassi.
“Many a politician has already said, ‘when you’re back in Washington DC you’re 3000 odd miles from California and if you’ve never been out there to see how carrots are harvested, how do you make a right decision on issues like labour or working conditions for farmers etcetera?’,” she said.
Ms de Grassi said the animal activist movement in the US was “robust” and involved “innumerable” groups.
“Whether it’s dealing with dog and cat specific issues or more broadly than that, you can go on the internet and find hundreds of entities,” she said.
“Clearly they’re active in our legislature - they lobby and do media campaigns - and they’re on Facebook and on Twitter.
“There’s a fair bit of negativity in the reporting and it’s not always factual.
“Because the general public does not, on a day to day basis, have interactions with agriculture, when somebody reports something happening in the industry, that’s not well understood by the general public, then it’s almost like an urban myth develops around it.
“I’d say probably the greatest irritation is the assertion by activists and others that something negative has happened, when in fact nothing has gone wrong.
“How do you correct something that wasn’t even true in the first place?
“We constantly have to explain what we do in agriculture in a way that’s consumable and understandable for someone who doesn’t live on a farm or hasn’t even been on a farm or doesn’t know somebody in their current realm who has anything to do with agriculture.
“Yet most everybody eats at least once a day; a significant proportion of the population eats twice a day; and there are certainly many people who eat three times a day.”