Virginia farmers share outreach efforts

local workshopVirginia Farm Bureau county leaders heard local political success stories and learned from each other Nov. 27 during the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation 2018 Annual Convention in Hot Springs. A workshop titled “Taking It On Locally” featured a panel of county Farm Bureau leaders who shared how their organizations have built relationships with their elected officials and addressed local issues that had adverse effects on agriculture.

“If we don’t speak up for ourselves, no one else will,” said Andrew Smith, VFBF associate director of governmental relations. “These local government bodies may not have bad intentions, but they often don’t take into account unintended consequences or the impact that local ordinances can have on the farming population.”

The Frederick County Farm Bureau hosts an annual meal with local supervisors outside the board room, said Steve Black, county Farm Bureau president. “We just keep an open a dialogue with them. We talk about issues that concern them and concern us.”

That dialogue proved fruitful earlier this year when the Virginia Department of Transportation began enforcing slow-moving vehicle restrictions on a four-lane bypass around Winchester. Working with elected officials, the county sheriff, VDOT and other rural businesses, county Farm Bureau leaders developed a permit process to allow large farm equipment to continue using the bypass.

In Albemarle County, “we were told a proposed stormwater utility fee was a done deal in 2017, but we decided to fight it anyway,” explained past county Farm Bureau president Dave Norford. The fee was intended to fund improvements to roads and infrastructure to improve water quality. Farm Bureau leaders soon realized the ordinance would be expensive for rural residents because it was based on the square footage of all hard surfaces on their property, including roofs and gravel roads.

“We wrote a letter to our members and partnered with other groups” to spread the word, Norford said. “We also used social media and ended up generating a firestorm of public opinion. We went on television, did radio interviews and even organized a tractor-cade before a county supervisors meeting.”

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors tabled the proposed ordinance in April and paid for repairs of rural roads through the county’s general fund. “This really opened my eyes to the power of an organization like Farm Bureau,” Norford said.

David Emert, Prince Edward County Farm Bureau president and a newly elected member of that county’s board of supervisors, advised farmers to have their facts straight before speaking with any elected official. Credibility is everything, he emphasized, and it is lost the moment someone is found to be exaggerating the impact of a policy or using vague arguments.

Emert ran for office after county supervisors passed a new fencing ordinance that proved to be expensive for livestock producers and was ruled vague and unenforceable by a circuit court judge. He was elected by five votes, and the county board has been tweaking the ordinance with the goal of a more balanced approach in the coming weeks.

“I’m proof you can get elected even if folks say it’s not possible,” Emert said. Additionally, “if your county has a fencing ordinance, pay attention to it,” he warned. “Be an advocate for yourself.”

Jim Jennings, president of the Mecklenburg County Farm Bureau and a longtime county supervisor emphasized the need for farmers to create and maintain relationships with local government leaders—and consider running for office if they see a need. “Absolutely Farm Bureau members should consider running for local office. Nobody can tell your story better than you can. That brings the passion to it that makes the difference.”

Jennings also urged Farm Bureau leaders to work with county governments to create an agriculture advisory board if they don’t already have one. “It’s the single best thing you can do to connect agriculture to local politics,” he said.

Bruce Stanger, a Montgomery County cattle producer and member of the VFBF board of directors, also advocated maintaining relationships with county leaders. “Reach out to your local legislators before you need them,” he advised. “We hold an annual legislative update dinner every winter with our General Assembly representatives. It’s a conversation; we’re not asking for anything, and everybody has a good time.”

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