July 26, 2023

President’s Notes: I Am Agriculture

On June 26, 1963, from the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, President John F. Kennedy demonstrated a show of Cold War-era solidarity with the citizens of West Berlin when he issued the declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

For the 120,000 who gathered to see JFK that day, I imagine these words—intended to declare “I am a Berliner!”—conveyed America’s commitment to stand united with the citizens of West Berlin who were isolated deep inside communist East Germany.

Today, some in U.S. agriculture may liken themselves to Cold War-era West Berliners, seemingly beset on all sides by hostile regimes. Certainly, the mounting challenges farmers must confront are being compounded by the actions of local, state and federal policymakers.

For individual farming operations, the question then becomes: How does our business survive into the next generation in the face of overwhelming regulatory and marketplace demands?

Historically, the answer has been, in part, through collective action in the form of trade associations. Over the years, numerous trade associations have popped up—some general in scope, while others represent a specific commodity group or geographic region.

For all the benefits these trade associations provide their memberships, they are all—to varying degrees—susceptible to bouts of parochialism, leading to insular, territorial pursuits. Those moments can easily undermine the power of the collective voice of the whole.

Make no mistake, trade association professionals know they must demonstrate value for every dollar of member dues. That is a good and healthy thing, but we probably all can think of times when the motivation to stand out from the crowd led to either a diminution of the power of collaboration, or even a fracturing of unity among industry groups.

During my 20 years in the industry, I have often wondered how powerful agriculture could be if we locked arms on every issue. If, in the spirit of Jack Kennedy, instead of saying, “I am tree fruit” or “I am dairy” we said: “I am agriculture.”

If, according to USDA data, we leveraged the $1.3 trillion contribution of agriculture, food and related industries to the U.S. gross domestic product, a 5.4 percent share. Or used the leverage of 21.1 million jobs related to agriculture and food sectors, 10.5 percent of total U.S. employment.

Who would dare deny us then?

Even where we may have a difference of opinion, we must remember to heed the words of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin upon signing the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Our long and persistent nightmare on securing Congressional passage of ag labor reform—the most recent example being the Farm Workforce Modernization Act—confirms Franklin’s warning. The hard truth is that American agriculture has not been unified on this; nearly every interested farm group supported that legislation, but lack of support from the American Farm Bureau has been like trying to win a car race with the parking brake set.

Sticking together has proven to deliver policy victories. Case in point: Historically shut out of the farm bill, specialty crop organizations from across the country banded together and secured funding for the first time in the 2008 farm bill. Today, that alliance of specialty crop organizations continues to drive industry consensus around emerging farm bill priorities like federal investments in mechanization and automation.

I have good reasons for optimism. Upon assuming the role of President and CEO in February 2020, I found myself in the company of several other newly appointed top executives at sister California trade associations, including Ian LeMay, who became President of the California Fresh Fruit Association in June 2019, and Casey Creamer, who became President and CEO of California Citrus Mutual earlier that same year.

Together with long-standing collaborative relationships with other association heads, like Jamie Johansson of the California Farm Bureau, Emily Rooney of the Agricultural Council of California and others too numerous to mention, I am confident in our shared commitment to a unified approach to the service of our collective memberships.

JFK concluded his famous anti-communism speech by stating: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” I would steal this line and amend it as follows: All sectors of our industry, wherever and whatever they may produce, are agriculture.

We are all agriculture.