SYRACUSE, NY — If the U.S. Congress really wanted to get its act together, it should take a page from the New York State Farm Bureau playbook.
“This is true democracy at work,” Farm Bureau president Dean Norton commented as he chatted with fellow farmers from upstate New York during the Farm Bureau’s annual statewide conference, which was held at Holiday Inn in Liverpool, on Dec. 3-5.
Norton, a dairy farmer and livestock owner from Elba in western New York, gave his annual address on Dec. 4 to about 400 delegates from all 62 counties. “What makes our organization so strong comes from you,” he said.
He introduced a video highlighting activities of New York farmers in the past year, including highly successful fairs in Lewis County and Jefferson County that drew media attention; feature stories and news broadcasts about local farms, and meetings between Farm Bureau members and state legislators. Even the successful outcome of a lawsuit by West Virginia poultry farmer Lois Alt against the Environmental Protection Agency on Oct. 24 was touted by Farm Bureau as an example of the power of farmers when they organize in a common effort.
Norton talked about the challenges to farmers as a result of inaction by representatives in Congress, what he termed the key “D.C. dilemmas,” the long-delayed U.S. Farm Bill, immigration reform, farm inspections by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), and the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“We need to protect our farms from over-regulation,” Norton told the audience. “Every farmer goes through the same amount of challenges, for example, transportation costs. But when this week is over, go back to your farms and keep this (momentum) alive.”
“It’s always our aim to have an open dialogue,” Norton added, advising farmers to continue to stay in contact with their local political leaders.
The dialogue theme was evident throughout the the second day of the conference when farmers and/or their delegates calmly debated farm policies and issues on the floor, down to the exact wording of official New York Farm Bureau policies. The process had started at the grassroots level earlier in the year when delegates met with their county farm bureaus and voted on which issues would be discussed at this year’s state conference.
When they arrived for the state conference, members and delegates were given an agenda that included five pages of national resolutions for 2014. Sixteen of the state’s 62 county farm bureaus submitted input on the resolutions NYFB will end up supporting at the American Farm Bureau conference in January in San Antonio, Texas.
Among the topics discussed were the constitutional right to own and bear arms; the Freedom of Information Act; the use of farm vehicles on highways; shipping produce by railroads; food purchases by schools and the government; food quality, safety, labeling of imports, and quarantines; crop insurance and international trade.
There were also discussions on resolutions regarding environmental issues and energy, such as renewable fuels, gas drilling, hydrofracking and water quality as it affects the Chesapeake watershed; child labor, wages, taxation, Social Security, unemployment compensation and other labor costs; repealing or defunding the new Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (Obama Care); eminent domain and private property rights.
A panel announced each resolution to the members and displayed the wording on two large video screens. Three microphones were set up on the conference floor and members were allowed to speak pro and con on each issue. After the speakers finished, a voice vote was taken and the majority ruled. In a few instances when a vote was close, the panel called for a show of hands and count.
The voting was done so efficiently within a few hours before and after lunch. The Farm Bureau’s Facebook page trumpets its efficient organization with a video titled, “This is How the State Annual Meeting works. The farmer members listen to both sides of a public policy issue and then vote on it.”
Norton talked about the importance of signing up new members for the Farm Bureau. “When you go home, talk to your neighbors about your farm. Talk to them face-to-face, either to educate them or to express support of farm issues. Take it upon yourselves to talk about what (farmers) do.”
The three-day conference began on Tuesday afternoon. The opening ceremony featured the FFA Color Guard and introduction by New York State Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse. Then Dale Moore, Executive Director of Public Policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, addressed the delegates.
At Tuesday night’s dinner, sponsored by Farm Credit East, awards were given to contest winners in three categories: Young Farmers, Promotion and Education, and Membership. Winners of these awards will represent New York at the AFBF annual meeting in January.
The delegates convened again at 9 a.m. Wednesday, followed by remarks from NYFB Executive Director Jeff Kirby and Norton. The delegates discussed the resolutions in an afternoon session and then participated in workshops.
One of the workshops dealt with crop insurance protection. In another, Sherry Tomasky, of the New York State Department of Health, gave an outline of the New York State Health Benefit Exchange. Kyle Perry of the American Farm Bureau presented a workshop on expanding productivity. There was a workshop titled “Opening the Barn Doors to Open Up Minds,” a discussion of argitourism. Wednesday’s conference concluded with an OSHA workshop.
The evening banquet, sponsored by Nationwide Insurance, featured Keith Eckel, chairman of Nationwide Insurance, plus addresses by Dean Kathryn Boor, Cornell University CALS; Distinguished Service Awards to John Dyson and David Tetor, and a NYFB Foundation auction led by Bill Magee, chair of the New York State Assembly Agriculture Committee.
On the final day of the conference, the delegates conducted elections before adjourning.