Thursday, March 17, 2011

Voices of Small Farmers

The lobbyist and his vehicle — Mark Lilly of Farm to Family speaks at Farm Food Voices DC 2011, to which he traveled in his colorful Farm Bus.

Let’s play word association for a moment. What comes to mind when you hear “politics”? Maybe you see newspaper pictures of candidates shaking hands at a neighborhood coffee shop days before an election. Then there’s always the shot of the politician voting on Election Day. Maybe the image of the U.S. Capitol or another government building comes to mind.

How about “lobbyist”? That tends to evoke images of fat-cat deal-brokers in Italian loafers doing dirty work a smoky back room, doesn’t it?

The fact of the matter is that political statements are made all day every day by a wide range of interest groups. Essentially, they are lobbyists. Many of them come to Washington, DC, to voice opinions about federal legislation.

There is no shortage of controversial food-related issues these days and that’s exactly what brought the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA) to the Capitol this week.

NICFA organized its fifth annual Small Farm and Ranch Grassroots Lobby Day and Legislative Reception. Its members and supporters are farmers, restaurateurs, chefs and concerned foodies who stand behind the NICFA mission to “promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade that fosters availability of locally grown or home-produced food products.”

In shorthand, the lobbying day was called Farm Food Voices DC 2011. The NICFA lobbyists delivered their message in a form of show and tell. Throughout the day, they held meetings with Congressmembers and/or their aides to express their opposition to policies they believe harm the livelihood of farmers and the free choice of consumers. The show part of the show-and-tell exercise took place at lunchtime, when the majestic Senate Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building was converted into a food festival of sorts. Restaurants and farmers offered a bounty of artfully plated meats, cheeses, finger foods and desserts.

During the reception, guest speakers underscored the NICFA message from their distinct vantage points. Filmmaker Kristin Canty explained her personal motives for producing the forthcoming film Farmageddon. Mark Lilly described the Farm to Family bus he operates with his wife, Suzi, in Richmond, Va. Their refurbished school bus, painted joyfully by Happy the Artist, functions as a farmers market on wheels and it is literally the vehicle through which the Lillys accomplish their mission of “feeding the community one stop at a time.”

The reception speakers and grassroots lobbyists told first-person stories that illustrated the overall purpose of their efforts and the basic reasons why individuals come together to lobby.

“As our farmers cultivate the land for a rich yield in the future, so must we build and cultivate relationships with our legislators so that we are represented in the halls of Congress,” NICFA said. “Congress needs to know where good food comes from. This opportunity lets them make the connection that will help our farming freedom thrive and continue giving us access to healthy, safe food.

“Each year, it has greatly impressed our legislators and their aides to have farmers and producers literally standing behind their products. It is through encounters such as these that we will begin to harvest, from our legislators and indeed our culture, a loyalty to local foods. And Congress will begin to realize that the safest food system is through neighbor-to-neighbor food transactions.”

Next time you hear the word “lobbyist,” you can associate it with a farmer. Or a firefighter, a banker, a car manufacturer, a movie studio, an environmentalist, a Girl Scout or a mother against drunk driving. All these people are advocating for given policies through their trade organizations. They make regular pilgrimages to the Capitol and lobby just like NICFA. The word to associate with this is the very foundation of U.S. government: “democracy.”

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