Farm Bureau — A Growing Force



OLYMPIA, WA— Over the years, Okanogan County rancher Joel Kretz said he learned not to expect much from state lawmakers. After all, most of them represent urban areas.

"You'd show up and they'd take your head and send you home," Kretz said.

But his attitude has changed since joining the Washington State Farm Bureau. Last month, the Farm Bureau helped Kretz summon more than 300 farmers and ranchers to the Capital for a rally.

Overnight, a state regulation affecting private forest land went from an obscure bureaucratic acronym — RMAP — to a legislative hot button.

"I really felt like they listened to us because we had the Farm Bureau behind us," said Kretz.

Kretz is one of more than 6,000 people to join the Farm Bureau in the last 18 months, galvanized by such contentious issues as the endangered species act, water rights and government regulation.

Growth in rural membership has helped transform the once-sleepy group into a well-funded, respected and, some would add, ferocious, force not only in the Legislature but in state agencies and the courts.

The 30,000-member Farm Bureau turned heads in January by hiring Seattle's largest law firm, Perkins Coie, to challenge the constitutionality of unannounced state safety inspections on private property.

Mark Barrett, president of the Yakima County Farm Bureau, said he was impressed the Farm Bureau would take on Labor and Industries, the agency that conducts workplace and agricultural inspections.

"They have been willing to really stand up and take on the big issues," he said.

Such new-found firepower has not escaped the attention of traditionally powerful lobbies at the capital.

"The Farm Bureau has reasserted itself. We're fighting them on more issues than ever," said Jeff Johnson, a longtime legislative specialist for the Washington State Labor Council.

A Call to Action

When word spread last spring about a new forestry regulation, landowners in richly forested Okanogan County called the Farm Bureau for help.

As part of a plan to implement the state's forest practices act, which seeks to balance the interests of the environment and the timber industry, the Department of Natural Resources is requiring owners of forested land to develop "road maintenance and abandonment plans," or RMAPs for short.

For example, private forest landowners could be required to install culverts and other improvements on their private forest roads in order to improve fish habitat.

To ranchers like Kretz, the devil was in the details.

"I am a rancher who happens to own some timberland where the timber has no value, and they are treating me like Weyerhaeuser," Kretz said.

Replacing a culvert that blocks fish passage can cost between $3,000 to $20,000. Some improvements could cost as much as $100,000, according to complaints filed with Natural Resources.

The University of Washington put the statewide cost of compliance to family foresters at $375 million.

Pat Batts is the administrative vice president, effectively the full-time executive director of the Farm Bureau, in Olympia. He said the RMAP issue was tailor-made for the organization.

"We look on ourselves as a grass-roots organization, and we are very effective at using e-mail and identifying people who have a hot spot," Batts said.

Last month, angry farmers and ranchers rallied in Olympia wearing "No RMAP" buttons. Batts counts at least 200 new Farm Bureau members as a result of the campaign.

Central Washington lawmakers are solidly behind the Farm Bureau on the forest road and other issues, such as curbing the inflation adjustment on the state's minimum wage.

Legislation to revise the regulatory requirements is under consideration, though Farm Bureau lobbyists aren't resting easy.

"What the Legislature giveth the Legislature can take away," said Hertha Lund, a lawyer for the organization who earns high marks from members for her tenacity.

Carrying a Big Stick

Lund, who grew up on a ranch in Montana, is one of three full-time lobbyists for the Farm Bureau, which has a total Olympia staff of 18 and a budget of $1.7 million.

The Farm Bureau outguns the Washington State Grange, which has one legislative director, and approaches the clout of the Association of Washington Business, the lobby that counts heavyweights like Boeing among its members.

Lawmakers from both political parties have learned they cannot ignore the Farm Bureau.

Rep. Helen Sommers, a Seattle Democrat who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said she wouldn't think of turning down a Farm Bureau luncheon invitation.

"Obviously I don't have any farms in my district, but it's a good active organization with a good reputation," Sommers said.

The Farm Bureau also commands politicians' attention with a Political Action Committee it started five years ago.

The Farm Bureau PAC raised $77,000 last year, up from $37,000 in 2000, according to state campaign records. Incumbent Central Washington lawmakers garnered Farm Bureau endorsements in last year's elections.

But they didn't get significant contributions, records show, because the PAC prefers to put its money in contested races where the candidate's vote in Olympia could affect family farmers statewide, a spokesman said.

The Farm Bureau has another, less public source of financial muscle: a workers' compensation refund program.

Under the program, two full-time Farm Bureau safety inspectors travel the state and help members improve their safety records with a goal of lowering their workers' compensation premiums.

Premium savings are refunded to the employer through the Farm Bureau, which takes a 20-percent fee. That sum amounted to about $800,000 in the most recent year, which Batts said covers the cost of administering the program.

The Washington State Labor Council suspects the Farm Bureau uses the funds to lobby against workplace safety standards at the Legislature.

Batts said the Farm Bureau supports repealing the state ergonomics law and curbing the minimum wage, but doesn't use proceeds from the rebate program for political activity.

"We are not anti-labor. We do believe L&I is doing some things that are not legal," Batts said.

Trespassers Not Welcome

While Farm Bureau members are hardpressed to name a state agency they like, many save their harshest criticism for Labor and Industries.

"They've been out in my orchards three times this year, just randomly. There have been no complaints against me," said John Warling, who grows apples near Othello.

Labor and Industries vigorously defends unannounced searches on agricultural enterprises.

"One of our mandates as a state agency is to protect workers from injuries or death on the job," said Michael Silverstein, the department's assistant director for safety and health.

Agriculture has had the third-highest injury and illness rate in the state for many years, below construction and manufacturing, according to agency reports.

Every year, one in 10 agricultural workers suffers a work-related injury. In 2002, six people died.

Batts said farmers don't oppose inspections.

But he said their Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure is violated when an inspector "trespasses" to talk to workers without the farmer's knowledge.

Members like Warling and Yakima Bureau president Barrett are cheering on the lawsuit and other Farm Bureau efforts.

"We are finally fighting back," Barrett said.


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