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Iron Range earns 2024 Excellence in Grassroots Lobbying Award

Dist. 109 Rep. Jen Hill got a firsthand lesson in agricultural irrigation from Sagola-area potato growers Rodney and Dale Johnson during a midsummer informational tour organized by the Iron Range Farm Bureau.
Date Posted: February 13, 2024

When word reached the central U.P. that regulatory maneuvers waaay downstate could impact water use for farmers statewide, Iron Range potato growers took notice — then took action. 

Down in Branch County, the state’s move to reclassify the Prairie River’s temperature classification from warm to cold would’ve dramatically limited farmers’ freedom to tap it for irrigation. Despite unfolding 400 miles south of the Johnson Brothers Potato Farm near Sagola, the issue struck very close to home for those brothers — Rodney and Dale Johnson — who quickly put their Iron Range Farm Bureau in motion. 

With added muscle from Promotion & Education Chair Faith Kuzak and District 12 Director Dave Bahrman, Iron Range tapped key ally Ed McBroom: a dairy farmer from nearby Waucedah and active Farm Bureau member who just happens to also be their Dist. 38 State Senator.

Together the Iron Range team arranged for two new legislators — State Representatives Jen Hill (D-Marquette) and Greg Markkanen (R-Baraga) — to tour the Johnson farm and learn firsthand the realities of farm irrigation and the potential implications of metering.

“Irrigation is a critical issue,” Hill said. “We want to protect our water resources, protect the fish and spawning habitats and nesting habitats for birds.

“The chance to go out to see actual farms and the work that people are doing on the ground is the most important thing,” she continued. “Nothing beats actually being there, being in person, seeing the fields.”

The Johnson brothers demonstrated why potential water-use regulations should be regional in scope, not statewide, and explained how restrictions could negatively impact their livelihood and the food supply. Their two key points focused on the rate of water table restoration after irrigation, and the restrictions imposed by reclassifying streams from warm to cold.

To those points they explained to their non-farmer guests that even after irrigating 300 acres of thirsty potatoes for almost two straight months, the water tables associated with those fields either recovered very quickly or never decreased in the first place. They also demonstrated that the underground streams flowing through the water table remained the same temperature. 

“I really appreciated the Farm Bureau bringing folks together; it’s tough when you’re representing such a big area,” said Hill, whose district includes Alger, Baraga and Marquette counties, plus part of Dickinson. 

Beyond Hill, Markkanen and McBroom, the mid-July event was attended by another 13 Iron Range Farm Bureau members, including one Young Farmer who took home a valuable lesson after seeing the organization’s clout in action.

“This event made connections — and hopefully an impression — that will allow us to speak with these elected officials about other topics in the future,” said Rodney Johnson, president of the Iron Range Farm Bureau. “We will continue to use every opportunity to talk with our legislators in person, and leverage that we have a sitting state senator — a farmer and a member — who helps with his knowledge of the legislative process and his contacts.”

To that point, Sen. McBroom wore both his Farm Bureau and lawmaker hats throughout.

“If you can help with the new legislators by bringing in somebody you already have a good relationship with — to help with who’s meeting who and give people credibility — it’s an important step,” he said. “Even if you think they already made their position very clear, it’s important to reach out to them and share the true story — build that connection and establish that we have the same cares and concerns.”

McBroom’s advice to county Farm Bureaus looking to improve relations with lawmakers hinges on those relations being mutually beneficial: “Recognize the need when it comes up, and that legislators are looking for information to help them understand an issue better,” he said.

“Even in Farm Bureau we might not know about the next issue that’s coming, but the legislator might hear about it and say, ‘You know who I need to call? I need to call those people who invited me to lunch and showed me their farm … because they’ll be able to answer this question I have.’”

Both new lawmakers expressed appreciation to Iron Range for its outreach.

“Farm Bureau is a place where I can hear the diversity of opinions that exist in the farming community,” Hill said. “I want to make sure we’re passing laws that serve as guardrails where needed, but also aren’t too restrictive.”

“It’s really hard to understand working the land if you don’t have any prior knowledge about that,” said Markkanen, who still owns the U.P. farm his grandparents originally homesteaded. “While ag isn’t as large as it used to be, it’s still vital to our economy and communities.

“A lot of these farms are heritage farms that’ve been in the family for multiple generations. It’s important to understand the issues that affect U.P. farmers today.”

Nicole Sevrey headshot

Nicole Sevrey

Public Policy Communications Specialist
517-679-5344 [email protected]