I missed a day of work today to take part in something I have never done before, lobby. I drove two hours up to Albany on a gray and rainy Monday morning because I felt I had to stand up for what I believe in. Albany wants to make big cuts to important agricultural and environment programs. These programs range from protecting farmland for future generations, increasing consumer access to nutritious foods grown in New York, helping farmers protect water and the environment, and strengthening the farm and food economy,
Now, usually when someone says the word lobbyist I immediately picture some hot shot suit paid thousands of dollars by a corporation to derail any movement that gets in the way of profit or imposes regulations. Instantly a few things come to mind such as the contentious issue of removing soda machines from schools or even the health bill. But, lobbying is one of the more effective ways (aside from chaining yourself naked to a tractor) to express your point of view or concern to the people in charge. And when you don't speak up, the corporate lobbyists can whisper sweet nothings into the senators and assembly-persons ears with no one contradicting them or making their opinions known otherwise. And what could be more important than Strong Farm and Food Economy, Healthy Environment, and Nutritious Foods??
No Farms No Food is the slogan of the American Farmland Trust and they organized this rally/day of lobbying. I asked Jeff Williams, New York Farm Bureau, how far in advance they had to make appointments with the legislators. He responded "usually, if you are meeting with one person, a week in advance is sufficient, but because we are so many people and we are seeing so many legislators it was planned three weeks ahead of time."
In total there were 130 participants representing over 70 organizations all over New York state. We shuffled into a conference room and began our day with some pep talk from various organizations and were given tips on lobbying. The participants were split into groups and were assigned a team leader, typically someone who has previous experience lobbying, and would do the introductions and sum up the main talking points. Our schedule was pretty packed. We met with a member of Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, and a representative of Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
There were 7 people on my team. We would introduce ourselves to the legislator, shake hands, and present him or her with a business card and a folder with our talking points and other information. One of the lobbying tips was to take one of the talking points (in this case, trying to convince them not to cut funding or restore previous funding that was already allocated) and try to make it personal. That is just what our group did. We were diverse enough that we could cover all the main priorities. I would talk about access to local meat being very difficult and expensive because of the lack of infrastructure (slaughterhouses and processing plants) and the resultant lack of farmers raising grass-fed livestock. Our main argument to the legislators was this, when you support local agriculture that money is recycled back into the community. It is good for the economy, good for health, good for the environment. The agriculture and environment programs only make 1% of the total budget (around $100 million dollars) and yet have been disproportionately cut to almost 50% of what they were in previous years.
I found it really interesting the various levels of interest, support, and responses we got from each person. Some were very supportive, some were indifferent, one assemblyman saw Food Inc, which we thought would win him over to our side for sure. However, his main concern was the budget. And he was lamenting the fact that Wall Street wasn't given out those $100 million dollar bonuses in cash anymore (they give it in stock instead) and that the state doesn't get the $7 million dollars in tax revenue. Hold up. You mean to tell me that they are taxed at a rate of less than 10%? Geeze, no wonder the government has no money!
Below is a sample of the budget cuts being made to important agricultural and environment programs. This can be found at the American Farmland Trust.
It was a great experience, to actually feel like I was taking part in democracy. Even if you missed the rally, it is not too late to let your opinion be known. If you live in New York State you can contact your legislator and tell them to not let Governor Patterson make these cuts. Click here to find out more.