Democracy in Action: Highlights from the Farmer Fly-In Project

by Ben Feldman, FMC Policy Specialist | ben@farmersmarketcoalition.org

Farmer Fly-In Project participants on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

Last week was the culmination of months of planning for the Farmer Fly-In Project. Thanks to your donations, and despite a wild week in D.C., we were able to bring six farmers and one market manager to meet with legislators on Capitol Hill about the importance of farmers markets and the farm bill programs that support them. This type of advocacy — constituents speaking directly with their elected officials — is by every account the most effective way to influence policy, and is why it’s so important that direct-marketing farmers are heard by federal lawmakers.

Our participants did an amazing job advocating for farmers markets and critical federal programs such as the Farmers Market Promotion Program, WIC/Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. The group crammed 22 meetings into a day and a half, including a meeting with the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Mike Conaway (TX). Led by Rancher Amy Greer (Winters Family Beef), a constituent of Conaway’s district, the group was praised by Chairman Conaway for being effective advocates for farmers markets and engaging in the best type of advocacy.

Rancher Amy Greer leads conversation with House Ag Chairman, Mike Conaway.

While the meeting with Chairman Conaway was noteworthy, it was far from the only performance worthy of praise. In a meeting with Congressman Glenn Thompson (PA), vice-chair  of the House Agriculture Committee, Rancher Lyn Garling (Over the Moon Farm) demonstrated how income from the farmers market directly benefits her community by listing specific local businesses she shops from in her community, and by showing only 5% of her purchases are made out of the state.

Rancher Lyn Garling with Congressman Glenn Thompson.

Market manager Gia Matheney (Hernando Farmers Market) came prepared with a wealth of statistics about the impact of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program and WIC/Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs, and presented an incredibly compelling case to both Senator Thad Cochran and Congressman Trent Kelly (MS). While nearly all the meetings were with elected officials, Rancher Amy Greer and Farmer Eli Cook (Spring Valley Farm and Orchard) proved to be a powerful 1-2 punch when meeting with newly appointed Undersecretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Greg Ibach.

Amy started with an explanation of how, without farmers markets, her family’s sixth generation ranch would no longer be in the family. Eli followed with his own story about how he didn’t come from a farming family, but started as a kid “raiding the family vegetable garden” to sell at markets. Later, he began his farming career on just a one-acre plot of land, which has now expanded to a $4 million a year farming operation that sells exclusively through farmers markets and other direct marketing outlets.

Gia Matheney with Senator Thad Cochran (left). Farmers Eli Cook and Amy Greer, with FMC Executive Director Jen Cheek, meet with leaders from USDA AMS, Tricia Kovacs and Arthur Neal (right).

I have sat through many meetings with elected officials at all levels of government, and know their reactions can span a wide spectrum. What was particularly exceptional about these visits was the high level of engagement and enthusiasm for this group of advocates. Congressman Rick Allen spoke about his love for tomato sandwiches, his desire to visit the farm of his constituent, Farmer Jennifer Taylor (Lola’s Organic Farm), and asked how the federal government could support farmers markets. The entire Georgia delegation was drooling over farm made cane syrup that Farmer Julia Asherman (Rag and Frass Farm) offered as presents, and based on the questions Congressman Doug LaMalfa asked of Farmer Armen Carlon (Sierra Cascade Blueberries), he might be giving up rice farming for blueberries.

Farmers Jennifer Taylor and Julia Asherman with Congressman Rick Allen (left). Farmer Armen Carlon with Congressman Doug LaMalfa (right).

Based on this reception, the group of farmers and market managers left D.C. feeling energized and excited about their experience.

I am very proud to have been a part of the Farmers Market Coalition Fly-In to D.C. to advocate for farm bill programs that benefit farmers markets and farmers and ranchers,” Amy wrote to me shortly after departing from D.C. “Having an opportunity to speak directly to legislators and their staff was inspiring and taught me that all of our voices are important and should be heard. If we don’t speak up and act as advocates, we won’t make a difference for ourselves and others. FMC helped us tell our stories and impress on our lawmakers the importance of thriving farmers markets for small Ag all over our country.”

Lyn Garling echoed similar thoughts about her experience:

“What an eye-opening experience it was for me to visit legislators in their offices to speak to them personally about my policy concerns as a small farmer trying to make a living! The Farmer’s Market Coalition staff did a super job of helping us feel at ease, understand the whole process and the issues at hand. Now I am way more likely to be paying close attention to how my legislators are influencing farm policy and also much more confident about directly letting them know my opinions. As they say, ‘this is what democracy looks like’!”

So what’s next? While these visits are an important first step, they are just the beginning of building an ongoing relationship with these legislators. Over the next few months we will begin to plan visits to farms and markets for these legislators and others.

Getting elected officials onto farms and into farmers markets is a powerful way to cement the relationship and demonstrate the impacts of these programs in their districts. As farm bill discussions heat up, these farmers and market managers will use the opportunities created by last week’s visits to continue to express their perspective on the farm bill — and FMC will also continue working to facilitate these important conversations and relationships.