It’s a paradox caused by society’s shrinking food-production segment: While the world grows smaller, Washington, D.C., gets further and further away from understanding the heartland of the country. And that bodes ill for the nation’s farmers and ranchers.
To counter the lack of knowledge about agriculture among legislators and regulators, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has stepped up its education efforts. It’s also embarked on an aggressive campaign to provide more support to political candidates who support cattle industry interests.
“We need to try to help elect candidates who understand and appreciate what we’re about,” says Phillip Hardee, a beef producer from Andalusia, AL, and chairman of NCBA’s Political Action Committee (PAC). “Nobody’s going to do it for us.”
As a start, the NCBA PAC has established a goal of raising $1 million each election cycle ($500,000/year) to elect candidates with values and interests shared by the cattle industry. According to Colin Woodall, NCBA vice president of government affairs, the organization would like to double that figure in five years.
Though the beef industry is the largest segment of agriculture, it hasn’t always done a good job of protecting itself in elections, Hardee says.
“Historically, (the beef industry) has been near the bottom in raising PAC funds. As chairman (of the PAC Committee), it’s my goal to change that,” he says.
Karl Rove, the talented political strategist and advisor to former Pres. George W. Bush, gave Hardee’s objective a boost during a speech at the Cattle Industry Convention in Denver in February. Rove told attendees they needed to be more involved in who was getting elected to Washington positions.
“You want to have a role, you want to have a voice, you want to have an influence in making our country what you want it to be,” Rove said. “The first thing you ought to do is write a check to the PAC.”
Partially as a result of Rove’s pitch, as well as a silent auction and other efforts, about $84,000 was raised by NCBA PAC during the Denver convention.
“We need more people contributing more,” Hardee says. “I hope Rove’s comments were just a start.” In fact, more is planned for coming months, including working with state cattle organizations to set income goals and priorities for national elections.
Steve Foglesong, an Illinois cattle feeder, former NCBA president and a long-time PAC supporter, agrees with Hardee. He says it isn’t the amount, it’s the volume. “Everybody needs to play a part,” he says. “We’re trying to get people to invest at some level.”
Foglesong says $20 from an individual to a candidate doesn’t mean the same as that same $20 combined with funds from other producers. “The individual donation might go unnoticed,” he says. “But when we pool it, we can have some say.”
According to Foglesong, only a few of the 535 legislators in the U.S. House and Senate understand agriculture (see “A Legislator Concurs”). Because NCBA is well respected in Washington, it’s able to prove itself on a regular basis and provide factual information to answer propaganda provided by opposing groups with no science on their side. Still, fewer producers mean fewer dollars, and fewer dollars in Washington means fewer friends.
PACs have taken a public relations beating in the past decade, but Foglesong and Hardee see the results, not the process.
“That’s the way the system works,” Hardee says. “We didn’t create it.”
Foglesong agrees. “You don’t have to like it,” he says. “That’s just the way it works.”
While some claim PACs are about access to government, Woodall says that isn’t so. Rather, it’s about electing those who NCBA supports – and defeating those who would want to damage the industry.
“If you’re looking for change, the best way to get it is to change the personalities,” Woodall says. “The question is: who do we want to represent us in Congress?”
“It’s about taking sides,” adds Foglesong. “We need to have more people on our team – and know who’s on our team.”
“There are good guys, and there are bad guys,” Hardee says. “And we had better be willing to roll up our sleeves and say we’re for the good guy.”
Neither Hardee nor Foglesong buy the contention from some producers that politics doesn’t concern them. “We’re all into politics, because the people we elect impact our business,” Hardee says. “To have a friend, you have to be a friend.”
“We have to be involved at a higher level,” Foglesong adds. “If we don’t put anything into it, we shouldn’t expect anything out of it. We need to step up to the plate. The government isn’t going to take care of you.”
Woodall says producers “need to get involved in the political process, and make sure they hold their members of Congress accountable.” Still, he thinks the majority of NCBA members do understand this need. “Our members are engaged in the process. They know the importance of it,” he says.
Hardee says he’s hopeful for the future, having seen the results of the 2010 election, which suggested that the two previous years “didn’t provide the ‘change’ (Americans) wanted in 2008.” NCBA’s PAC was part of the 2010 turnaround, he says, with the organization identifying good candidates and helping defeat unfriendly ones.
“And, I hope we can continue to do our part in PAC to make sure we have business-minded people in the House and Senate,” he says.
That will mean cattle producers will have to be more business-minded as well, treating their checks to the PAC more like a business expense than a contribution, Foglesong says. “It’s a cost of doing business,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who want to put you out of business. And they have a lot of money.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), a ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee and lifetime supporter of ag, thinks it’s important that ranchers and farmers help him spread the word.
“Electing policy makers who have no clue where their food comes from is a good way to put farmers and ranchers out of business,” Roberts says. “We can’t let that happen or we are guilty of jeopardizing the security of this nation’s food supply.”
Roberts is one of the rare legislators who understand agricultural issues, and he knows more appreciation of the industry is needed in Washington.
“I urge producers to get involved in commodity organizations like NCBA and donate to its PAC,” he says. “This helps ensure that we are electing leaders who prefer common sense over useless rhetoric and propaganda.”
For more information on the NCBA PAC, contact PAC Director Anna Lee at [email protected], or 202-347-0228.