By Jeremy C. Nagel
Normally the phrase “phoning it in” refers to someone doing the bare minimum to get the job done. But Farm Bureau members taking part in MFB’s Dec. 2 Annual Meeting didn’t get that memo, and didn’t let the challenges of a remote format get in the way of expressing their stances on the 2020-21 policy docket.
One of the big unknowns heading into the event was the toll an all-virtual format might take on the policy deliberations at the heart of the event. With hundreds of members participating remotely — calling in through computers and voting via smartphone — it was easy to imagine some feeling silenced by the distance.
Not to worry.
Neither technology nor the abbreviated time frame hindered a free exchange or kept members from taking an active role in this most sacred of Farm Bureau institutions: delegate-floor policy deliberations.
Regardless of the meeting format, one of the more daunting delegate feats is introducing, supporting and defending a concept that doesn’t go over as well as you’d hoped.
“We thought it would be a slam dunk but it got tossed out,” said Wayne County Farm Bureau President Mike Sell about a proposal to raise the profile of diversity and inclusion language.
“Let’s just say I could’ve been a little more tactful — I kinda shut myself down,” he added. “Here in Wayne County, we talk about it frankly: Farm Bureau needs to clearly state we need to be inclusive of those people who meet the membership requirements.”
Opponents cited the presence of very similar language already included in the company’s Code of Conduct.
“We view the Code of Conduct as an HR (human resources) tool — it’s about staff, not members,” Sell said. “It’s not the policy book.”
The issue’s dismissal, he said, has only energized his membership and steeled them to dig in for the proverbial Long Game.
“You need to keep even, constant pressure on it,” Sell said. “Others will come onboard but it’s going to be a slow process.”
The cause wasn’t without allies; Bay County delegate Mitch Bigelow offered a convincing defense of the proposal.
“I think it’s important having policy not just saying we’re inclusive but actively promoting and searching out diversity,” he said afterwards. “A lack of policy around inclusion is not indicative of how inclusive we are.
“The more times we can put that in the policy book — and not get hung up on where it goes — the better,” Bigelow said. “As a general farm organization, we’re only as strong as how active we are at getting different segments represented and heard in our policy.”
The overarching concept of policy as the organization’s enduring definition was also tested by attempts to codify therein some members’ skepticism about the integrity of the 2020 general election.
Saginaw County’s Amanda Sollman wasn’t letting that go without sharing a firm, concise opinion on the matter.
“We already have laws in place,” she said — existing laws guarding against the alleged voter fraud one recommendation alluded to. “Our policy should be timeless.
“I didn’t even phrase it as a motion,” she said afterward, admitting she expected scant support for her position.
“It’s really important for Farm Bureau to speak with a unified voice when we speak with representatives and stakeholders. We’re an organization made of individuals with a wide range of opinions. It’s vital people go to the microphone and make their voice heard — bring those perspectives to the forefront for consideration.
“People have to take into account different angles and different points of view. If they don’t hear them from somebody, they may never hear them,” Sollman said. “It’s hard to go into that group knowing you hold a different perspective. It’s easy to feel alone.”
Of course she is not alone; Amanda has good company in those members who aren’t the least bit shy about expressing themselves with conviction.
“I struggle a little with what I even said. I’d heard this notion and it hit a nerve with me,” recalls Jeff VanderWerff, the outspoken Ottawa County apple grower who spoke assertively in favor of an ag-labor housing GAAMP.
Beyond the obvious practical benefits, such a move would dramatically elevate the profile of an ongoing, high-priority issue common among specialty crop growers who know providing quality housing for the seasonal workers they rely on is key to attracting those workers in the first place.
But in an arena dominated by highly mechanized row-crop, livestock and dairy farmers, it may sound like pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
“The simple reality is we’re all guilty: We don’t necessarily understand the challenges other producers see every day,” VanderWerff said. “We have to try to keep an open mind and seek to understand the perspective of our fellow growers.
“Michigan is so diverse, not only agriculturally, but culturally as well, with varying political views, cultural views,” VanderWerff said. “And when you have an organization like Farm Bureau that has as big a tent as it does, and which truly wants to represent all sectors, you have to be willing to speak up for your individual commodity and region.”
Sometimes the challenge comes in reminding folks of certain fundamental truths they readily understand but will go to their grave cursing.
“I don’t like paying property taxes any more than anyone else, but Chris had a point,” VanderWerff said about his peer from across the state: Tuscola County Farm Bureau Delegate and Pioneer Seed man Chris Creuger.
“Nobody likes paying taxes, but how will we fund public services we’ve all come to expect?” Creuger said. “Public schools, fire departments, police, road funding, infrastructure… It all has to be paid for somehow. Those things don’t just happen.
“Specifically about taxation, we have to consider policy resolutions holistically.
“Annual meeting is a great place to have an open discussion to present the facts and let the delegates decide for themselves,” Creuger said. “But it’s important to have all sides represented, and when you see something on the screen that you feel doesn’t meet that criteria, it’s important that you speak up.
“We’re a diverse organization that represents a lot of different commodities and our needs and desires don’t always fall in line, but at the end of day we try and come up with policies that serve everyone.”