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March 15, 2022

The Farmer’s Second Job: Being an Agricultural Advocate

By Stephanie Metzinger, WG Senior Communications Manager

Beyond growing food that feeds the nation, farmers also are business owners, scientists, agronomists, entomologists, meteorologists, environmentalists and so much more.

The “second job” that elevates above the rest, however, is being an advocate for the industry. Advocating for the future of farming (also known as “agvocacy”) and meeting with lawmakers to provide a first-hand account of how laws directly affect agricultural operations go hand-in-hand with being a farmer.

“It is important to ‘humanize’ the issues,” said Colby Pereira, Vice President of Operations at Braga Fresh Family Farms. “At the end of the day we are farmers, but we are also human individuals and that can sometimes get lost in context as legislators and decision-makers are considering policy. It is important to contextualize the faces behind all ag production.”

For centuries, America’s food heroes have been on the frontlines of fighting for resources and support that will allow them to farm for years to come. This includes everything from urging lawmakers to pursue immigration reform to ensure a reliable source of labor, to pressing for a steady supply of water to allow crops to grow, and to battling restrictions on crop protection tools that hinder growers from protecting fruits and vegetables from pests and diseases.

“Farmers, especially those of us in Western agriculture, have to be smarter about literally everything today than we had to 25 years ago,” said Neill Callis, General Manager at Turlock Fruit Company. “This includes everything from regulatory matters, water use, employee well-being, tax policy and commodity markets. You name it, and we have to be experts on it to remain viable. And that’s aside from the actual farming we do!”

Whether it is partnering with advocacy-driven associations such as Western Growers (WG) or proactively creating deep relationships with lawmakers who represent the local region, today’s farmers are the heart of agvocacy. However, the current generation of farmers is aging. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of all U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years—up 1.2 years from 2012. In California, the age of an average farmer has increased by five years compared to 20 years ago.

As farmers retire, one question arises: who will pick up the “agvocacy baton” and continue to fight for the future of agriculture?

The next generation will.

In the past five years, the number of young farmers and agricultural champions who have stepped up to the plate to play ball in Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Sacramento has slowly increased. In that same timeframe, the industry has seen a significant shift in the composition of boards of directors for powerful advocacy commissions and associations. For example, Stephen Martori III was elected to the WG Board of Directors in 2017 following his participation in the association’s Future Volunteer Leaders (FVL)—a program that guides the next generation of leaders to become more informed and effective advocates for the fresh produce industry. FVL graduates Neill Callis of Turlock Fruit Company Inc., Brandon Grimm of Grimmway Farms, Alex Muller of Pasquinelli Produce Company, J.P. LaBrucherie of LaBrucherie Produce, Eric Reiter of Reiter Affiliated Companies, and Kelly Strickland of Five Crowns Marketing soon followed, and now 16 percent of WG’s board is comprised of next-generation farmers.

“If we’re not in legislative offices making our case for our industry, you can be absolutely sure someone else will be in there making their case against us,” said Callis. “It’s not a level playing field, and it’s not a guarantee of political success. But we can’t help the industry by staying on the sidelines pouting. We have to roll up our sleeves and participate in the broader political process at the local, state and federal levels.”

Callis first cut his teeth on advocacy during his 17-year career at NASA when he joined several colleagues from the NASA Ames Research Center on a “Space Day” visit to legislators in Sacramento to highlight and promote the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) education. Since then, he has joined WG’s Board—where he has made the case for national legislators to support R&D funding for agtech—and regularly hosts legislative farm tours.

“One of my favorite farm tours was when our friend Joe Del Bosque brought then California Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olson and California Speaker of the Assembly Toni Atkins to tour our asparagus operation,” he said. “Having the chance to spend a few minutes with them helped make the case that farmers are generally political centrists who want a ‘win-win-win’ scenario—a win for our businesses, our employees and their families, and our communities.”

Beyond WG, up-and-coming agricultural leaders are taking center stage in organizations across the industry. More than half of the California Avocado Commission’s 19-member board are next-generation producers. Government relations organizations, such as California Fresh Fruit Association and California Citrus Mutual, recently elected presidents under the age of 45. Young movers and shakers, like Colby Pereira, sit on numerous boards simultaneously to ensure that decision-makers hear the voice of farmers.

“It’s all about relationships, and I found that developing those relationships is key in making the advocacy part come easy. Behind every elected official is a human being, just as behind every farmer is a human being. When you have a mutual understanding that two human beings can come together to discuss issues, with the goal of finding common ground, the discussion seems to flow quite smoothly,” Pereira said.

A powerful 21st century tool that Pereira has used to engage with broad audiences on the current state of the industry has been social media and digital platforms. For example, to bypass the challenges that COVID-19 posed with in-person meetings, Pereira has led the charge at Braga Fresh in leveraging technology to hold virtual tours. Last year, she hosted the California Senate COVID-19 Response Committee for a virtual session where she was able to share how Braga Fresh had responded to COVID-19 as well as share many of the processes the farm had developed for its team and worksites.

“One of the best ways to support advocacy efforts is to keep an open-door policy and invite guests to visit, both in-person and virtually, to see what we do on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “The more that we are able to connect the ‘face(s) behind the food,’ the bigger platform we will have for ag.”

The clever incorporation of technology is just one of the modern techniques that the next generation is adding to the agvocacy toolbox. Ag producers have also tapped podcasts to relay messages from the farm. In just the last three years, podcast listeners increased by 29.5 percent; farmers including both Callis and Pereira have utilized this audio boom to get their messages out to policymakers as well as the general public by being featured in episodes on several podcasts.

As the onslaught of regulations facing farmers shows no signs of slowing down, the next generation’s passion for joining the agvocacy ranks will be key in the fight for agriculture.

“Having a voice in the fight for ag and being involved every step of the way is a philosophical matter of defending our country’s founding heritage: farming. Pure and simple,” said Callis.