Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 020 - Advocating for Sustainable Agriculture featuring Margaret Krome and Paul Wolfe

Margaret Krome: That is what’s deeply gratifying. That if you don’t allow yourself to fall into typecast we/they assumptions about who is with us. The people who can support us can absolutely surprise you.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. This time on the show: two agriculture policy experts discuss what it takes to get federal funding appropriated for sustainable agriculture programs. Margaret Krome is a seasoned lobbyist around issues of food and agriculture. But the ubiquity of pretension in Washington, D.C.’s political culture deeply unsatisfied her at the start of her career.

Margaret Krome: So I decided alright. I’m going to find out how to do policy in an unpretentious way. I’m going to demonstrate that you can engage with policy without having to try to fake anything. And you can be your authentic self. And that’s more or less what I think I’ve done.

Mallory Daily: Margaret now works as the Public Policy Program Director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, WI. The Institute is a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or NSAC, where Paul Wolfe works as Policy Specialist.

Paul Wolfe: We are a national coalition of about 120 groups across the country that work on federal agriculture policy, especially in the sustainable agriculture realm, conservation, local and regional food system, And a variety of other things including food safety, safety net rural development.

Mallory Daily: Both Margaret and Paul agree that, when it comes to federal ag policies, grassroots, local organizing is an absolutely necessary complement to the lobbying done in the marble halls of Washington.

Margaret Krome: So fundamentally, the thing about Farm Bills is they happen every several years. The thing about appropriations, it happens every year. And some programs need to be appropriated every year or they won't get any money. Some programs come in with a Farm Bill assumption that they will get "X" amount of money and there are little claws that are tearing at it to try to reduce that amount of money. You have to protect against the claws. But some programs actually won't get any money unless you make sure affirmatively that they do and SARE is one of those. So you have to make sure that those programs are understood. And the campaign is about targeting the members of in the House and the Senate, the Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee--so within the Appropriations Committee, the subcommittee dealing with agriculture. those members need to be contacted by their constituents expressing why it's so important. And we do that through fly-ins and action alerts and many things. And, of course, then the Washington staff of the National Sustainable Ag Coalition is in there meeting with their staff and helping to educate.

Paul Wolfe: Yeah. These are the people that write the appropriations bill and decide the amounts of money. It goes through the same process you would know for how a bill becomes a law. And it has to happen every year. So it has a much shorter term, but has a great impact even for that return on investment of time. So the appropriations process, SARE is one of those programs that would have no funding if it wasn't appropriated each year. And we advocate for that program among others. A lot of people in my career have come into D.C. because they care about an issue and want to work on something, but they also leave because they just can't stand the downsides. The inside baseball of DC. But I think there is a value at least understanding that system, even if you try to fight it or to work within it and work outside of it, which is I think what we both try to do. 

It's very easy in D.C. for people in the policy arena to try to bury you under their knowledge and to say, "I know more than you, so therefore you shouldn't question me." And so you have to be able, it's not so much being able to counter or getting a really great argument. It's trying to make sure there's no holes in your argument and that you understand the program just as much as the next person. Because information asymmetry in D.C. is a very powerful tool that people use to prevent change or to counter change. And Hill Staffers and people in Congress are pretty good at that, because they often have information that you don't. But congressional staffers, and you've probably seen this, because they work on so many issues, they often don't have a lot of, you know, they rely on other people to tell them and they're getting it from some other group that has a different opinion to you and, and you have to be able to say why that is not correct. But not in a way that cast doubt on them, but has no holes.

Margaret Krome: I really think it's a gift, I have to say. And it's a gift that I've always appreciated with Ferd Hefner, too. Ferd is deeply grounded in the specificity of all of the permutations of an issue. And he can strongly disagree, but he will find a way to accurately lay down a point of view without antagonizing. Rarely antagonizing. I've not ever seen the antagonist, you know, who takes a different point of view. That's a gift, I think.

Paul Wolfe: Information is power in D.C. and we see that. You mentioned Ferd, who has been doing this in D.C. for 30-plus years and you know, there is a successive train of young people that come into this, especially in the media arena that come to him to understand the depth of issues that there are not a lot of other people willing to share with them. Because people either monetize that information or like to control it, either to monetize it or to ensure that their point of view is not questioned.

Margaret Krome: Yeah, that's really true. Well I just want to say thank you because it's really important to have that combination of, you know, a steadiness and basic diplomacy, but willingness to grapple with the beast.

Paul Wolfe: You know, we, we've been talking a little bit all about policy in D.C. and how that works. But you know, the role that I play at an organization in Washington, D.C. is, is very important, but our power comes from the member organizations of NSAC that are able to directly contact members of Congress. It means more coming from somebody in Wisconsin than me going into that office. And so thinking about what are some of the big accomplishments in campaigns and things you've worked on? Where have you seen that the grassroots part of this equation? You know, working on Congress has been really important.

Margaret Krome: I'll do two versions of grassroots and one is the Washington one and that is the federal policy one. And that is of course, for 20-something years, I coordinated the Grassroots Appropriations Campaign. It's a kind of a funny thing. It was a quirky thing in the history of NSAC, and that is that pretty early on there were grassroots groups who resisted the idea of having a lot of staff at NSAC. They saw it as a zero-sum game. You know, there are only so many positions that can get funded in our movement and frankly, you know, this group wants it or that group. So the idea was well for a lot of the functions that need to be performed, why don't some of our member groups take on that function. And so there was a time when, D.C. was encouraging groups to do this and it just so happened the Wisconsin Rural Development Center got offered some funding to do federal policy work. And My boss called Ferd and said, "So what would be helpful?" And he said, "It would really help me if you could get Margaret"--I guess he was planning to have me do it--"you know, have Margaret do this appropriations campaign. This is just too much for me to do." 

So that's how I got started. And so there I was not working for NSAC and yet working, you know, in that capacity on behalf of the movement. And at that time we didn't yet have NSAC, we had the two lobes of the brain. We had Sustainable Ag Coalition and we had the National Campaign for Sustainable Ag. So I had two masters, so to speak, with whom I was trying to reconcile. Needless to say, I was a strong advocate for the merger. It was kind of like log rolling. But in any event it has been a position that has given me a chance to understand several things. One is, for one thing, we have never just worked on any issues. We've always sought our grassroots members' preferences and priorities. So that has happened not from the very beginning, but pretty early on. And I coordinated that. The crazy apparatus we now have, it started with the approps. campaign. And that meant that it was really interesting. We'd ask: what programs are people, did they care about most? Well, I can tell you SARE and ATTRA were the top two always for like two decades, and conservation programs, the value-added producer grant program. There's a list that's quite familiar to you and it's been that way for a long time. The farmer's market promotion program for a number of years was in there. We had a few others--the 2501. But the point is, of them, these two were very always the very highest on the list and vote getters. And then the strategy was, you know, of course working with the approps. ag subcommittee, how do we find the right people? 

You know, there's something quite satisfying about doing two things: one is assuming that though the constituents in a person's district totally think that they're worthless, that there can be some circumstances where they might support our agenda. If we frame our agenda well enough for them to see the relevance. So there's an art form, it's kind of a puzzle, you know. It's finding the right person who can make the case and helping them make the case and providing them the facts so that they can make the case. So we kept SARE alive for a few years. This guy I was mentioning, I don't know if you were there yesterday, but Jim Walsh from New York, he was the guy who people said to me when I was calling, of course pre-internet, doing due diligence. How do I find, you know, tell me what you know about Congressman Walsh and who do you know who might know Congressman Walsh. That kind of stuff. I was just starting to figure out the network. And everybody, I mean, everybody said he's hopeless. He's absolutely worthless, every person I called. It was like, oh my goodness. This is like a tough nut to crack. And so I set a strategy of conservatism and I went through extension, actually, and found the farmers. We had some farmers in his district who didn't meet this. And I said, we're not going there. I'm going to find these dairy farmers who look to him like every other farmer in the district. But they've gotten a SARE grant. So I worked with SARE to find what they've gotten. And I found the farmers, the tie-wearing whatever. And we really worked to have them reach out. 

And you know what? Jim Walsh saved ATTRA, saved SARE. There was a time when they were cut and he went to bat and protected them. And Joe Skeen in New Mexico, same thing. He's a very conservative Republican who was concerned that ATTRA was replacing the functions of extension and he didn't like SARE so darn much. And so we had to find this peanut grower who was again a real conservative fellow interpersonally, but he knew Joe Skeen and, you know, his apology to me was, "Well, you know, I spot spray my crops." Like, am I good enough? You know? And I said, you're just who we need. And he had gotten a SARE grant and he'd been part of a SARE grant. Those were the kinds of bridge builders, bridge crossers that I have learned to find. And you know, I find that is what's deeply gratifying. That if you don't allow yourself to fall into typecast, we/they assumptions about who is with us. The people who can support us can absolutely surprise you.

Paul Wolfe: I think you brought up an interesting subject about the two of the politicians and there's two things there to touch on. One is that is how it seems that the appropriations campaign within NSAC has kind of been an iterative process and how far we've come. You know, we still talk about trying to find those connections, but the process over the years has been refined down to having members and working with members that have been built up over years to have those relationships that they can go directly to those members of Congress. How far we've been able to come that we're not having to like, you know, track down people through extension every year to find them to submit appropriations requests. There's so many groups now that are able to work.

Margaret Krome: But you know what, when we were looking for people for the fly-in, guess who I went to to get the guy from Mississippi or Alabama this year. It was extension.

Paul Wolfe: Right. And I think the other part of that is very interesting is, you know, with the politicians, too, is how much they change and how politics change and the makeup of Congress changes and how you have to look for those. You can't you can't accept what you might think about somebody in a member of Congress, you know, just on their face because of their party affiliation or because of things. You're constantly amazed at the members of Congress that then express interest in issues. Food as medicine is one that I think we find a lot of interesting connections. The availability of seeds. You have some surprising--we call them in D.C., strange bedfellows. But they do exist. And if you're not asking, you're not digging, then you're not finding those people.

Margaret Krome: The other thing like that is veterans. It's very interesting to me how they have provided a really remarkable crossover set of interests because there are a lot of veterans who are coming out. I remember in Kansas looking for a good farmer to come in like a couple of years ago and it turns out that the SARE program has done this brilliant thing, which is that in Kansas, you know, Fort Leavenworth is huge. Yeah. And they have--I'm not sure what you call it--the reentry training after service. They have these training sessions for how are you going to function back in their civilian life. SARE in Kansas has developed a whole bunch of training programs and publications and they have helped people. Is it a big surprise that a lot of the farmers coming out of the military in that section of the world are going into sustainable ag. Isn't that interesting? 

SARE has become a midwife. Well, what that means is that we have a lot of people who are great spokespeople for SARE and for a number of our other programs for conservation programs and for whatever. And guess what, a lot of conservative members of Congress, as well as others, really understand and support veteran's issues. So a veteran is a darn-good spokesperson. I feel like there are some strategies that--I don't feel it's being cynical, it's just trying to find the points of connection that can work. One of the things that I have said a number of times--I've used it in building programs in Wisconsin on conservation and on other programs. We have a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program and other things like that farm-to-school. I imagine an asterisk, you know how there's stars like beaming out from the center of the asterisk? The center of the asterisk is the particular issue you're working on at that moment. And a coalition is the group that come together at that particular moment in time on that particular issue. And very often the trajectory is quite different on the other side of that asterisk. They came in from a different point of view in their heading off, but at that particular moment. And I've said that to many groups who've said, "We disagree on this!" And I say, "Yeah, but we we agree on this one thing. Let's build it." And I think if we can frame a lot of our policy work that way it takes the fear out of it. It allows people to get outside of their normal typologies.

Paul Wolfe: Right. So on that subject is, what do you think of is one of the things we're at that point now? And I think I have an idea.

Margaret Krome: I was going to say, I want to hear what you think.

Paul Wolfe: Well I think, I mean you've brought a veterans, which leads to the 2501 program. I think one of these crossroads we're at now, at least for NSAC, is I'm looking at what USDA calls socially disadvantaged farmers and trying to bring more women, more minority, immigrant, refugee communities into this movement. And we are kind of at that point where I think it's really starting to take hold and we're building a bigger focus on those communities because they have been so underserved, so to speak. But also subject to lots of discrimination and lots of policies that don't work for those communities and have not been meant to work for those communities. That's something we need to work on.

Margaret Krome: So let me ask you a question. Is there something that, in particular, gives you hope as you think about the next period of time in policy? What gives you a sense of optimism?

Paul Wolfe: Well, I think it's the public's growing focus on and engagement on the issues of food and what they put in their body. I mean, everybody does it. Yet, for many, many years and through my entire youth, you know, I was eating, most of what I ate as a child came out of a can or out of a box. And we thought that was totally fine and had no idea where it came from. And it's a little bit cliche, but people and consumers have a huge role to play to influence policy. So I think there's a lot of potential in that, but I think there's a lot of focus on consumers as how they influence what companies sell and what they do. But I think that we need to try to focus them on federal policy, which I think has just as big, if not more impact on our food and communities and rural systems as trying to change what a company does. So any thoughts on that topic? Cause you asked that question?

Margaret Krome: It isn't quite that topic, but I do have one last thing that I do want to say, which is that I think the funding for SARE illustrates a really critical truth, which is you should never feel so bleak about your immediate political prospects that you decide to not prepare for the opportunity that may present itself to get something done right. If you all hadn't been on your game and if we collectively hadn't worked to set the stage to be able to get that significant increase in SARE, it couldn't have happened. And I've always, I used to say it to my funders, you know, I'd say, "We need to have funding for the appropriations work that I do, not because I can guarantee you that we are going to get what we specifically want, but because if we aren't there, I can guarantee that we won't." I always think of it as a little wall and sometimes there are these little cracks in the wall and you go slithering through those cracks in the wall. And that's the critical thing that we need to know. We wouldn't have a Conservation Stewardship Program if we had never been prepared. And at the time, frankly the politics were so against its possibility, and just a crack in the wall opened and we went through. I think it's really important to understand that our existence and the existence of SARE and ATTRA and so many other programs is a testament to the fact that democracy can work. I am that person whose career has been built around discovering that democracy can work. It's kind of messy, kind of dirty, takes a lot of strategy, takes a lot of work, but it can work. And so I came into this with, you know, with that question and I've answered that question. So that's how.

Paul Wolfe: Yeah. Senator Merkley who is owed a lot of the credit for the work on SARE in the last few years, he's the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. You know, if we weren't there asking, we would've never, never, never happened. It's very easy in Congress to not do anything if nobody's asking, but sometimes you just have to be there to ask and if you have the right champion in the right place, you can make it happen.

Margaret Krome: There you go.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Margaret Krome of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin. And Paul Wolfe of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or NSAC, in Washington, D.C. You can check out links to their work in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thank you for listening. We'll catch you next time.