Lobbying 101

We all know about lobbyists, right? Special interest groups and high-priced lobbying firms wining and dining politicians on behalf of this industry or that company in order to sway public policy. These are the people every new political figure swears they are against when they are trying to get elected. That’s what I thought, anyway, after living in the DC Metro area and working for a trade association or two. But this week, I got to see a different side of lobbying.

You see, I spent Monday and Tuesday in Albany, tagging along with the Chenango County Farm Bureau during the New York Farm Bureau’s annual Lobby Days. The experience opened my eyes both in terms of the ins and outs of lobbying and the issues our diverse agriculture industry is facing.

These lobbyists weren’t the “suits” I’d always seen in DC. These were people straight off their farms, orchards and vineyards intent on telling their legislators exactly how it is in the agriculture industry. They were passionate and spoke from the heart about their livelihoods and the challenges they face as they struggle to keep their farms (and New York) growing.

I had never before thought of farmers as a “special interest group,” but of course when I thought about it, it made sense. Agriculture is, after all, New York’s largest industry. Why shouldn’t their interests be paramount in the minds of our state leaders?

Elected officials from rural Upstate New York have an understanding of many of these issues, or at least they should. But legislators from more suburban and urban areas don’t always fully understand the full import of agriculture to our state’s economy or the impact of the legislation they are drafting and passing on the industry. Heck, I grew up in Chenango County and didn’t realize half of what our agricultural producers are up against, especially in the current economic climate.

So each year these farmers shed their work clothes in favor of suits and ties and head to Albany, and for two days they work to educate our legislators on their industry. They try to open their eyes to the devastating effects a certain piece of farm labor legislation could have on farmers; the need for tort reform when it comes to liability issues regarding horseback riding and similar activities; the crisis New York’s dairy farmers face and even the potential impact of banning outdoor wood burners. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To make sure everyone was up to speed on the NYFB stance on the largest issues facing the industry, the Farm Bureau staff held not one, but two briefings for their members from across the state. They handed out pages of literature on the bills currently working through various committees which could impact farms and highlighted a variety of regulations which could also have a profound effect on the long term viability of agriculture.

They were prep classes really, where everyone learned what to say and how to say it. Don’t waste time with small talk, don’t be late, stay focused on the message, be patient, be respectful ... You know the drill.

We weren’t the only group lobbying on this particular “Tin Can Tuesday,” as they are apparently called by political staffers. There were school board members, a bottled beverage association, representatives from state universities and health care professionals. The halls and elevators were crowded with groups waiting for their 15 to 30 minute appointment with this senator or that assemblyman.

After we had made the rounds of the elected officials we were slated to meet with and I had gotten in my car to head home, I had some time to think. I realized that for the first time in my life I had actually participated in the political process. I’m not sure how much sway or influence our words had or will have, but I know I felt good about having our voices heard and acknowledged.

And I knew that I myself had received just as much of an education as any one of those legislators.

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