What do crawfish, politicians and regulators have to do with each other? Plenty, said Blaine Viator, incoming president, National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants (NAICC). As a board member and active member of the NAICC, he has attended a number of the organization's annual Crawfish Boil on Capitol Hill. NAICC has hosted the events for 14 years, with this past year's event drawing some 300 senators, congressmen and their staffers, USDA and EPA staffers and others involved in regulating or legislating on agricultural issues. Although the Boil is apolitical, it is the heart and soul of NAICC's effort to inform and educate those who write and enforce agricultural laws and regulations.
"NAICC doesn't have full-time lobbyists or even full-time employees on staff in Washington, D.C.," says Viator. "However, thanks in part to the Crawfish Boil, we can pick up the phone and make contact with legislators or key staffers overseeing agricultural issues."
In an age of partisan warfare on Capitol Hill, the Crawfish Boil stands out as an evening of relaxation, good will and good food. It is also the culmination of several days of intense activity by the NAICC board and members of the Government Affairs Committee (GAC). The first day is devoted to updating members on key issues, presentations by lobbyists from organizations like CropLife America and identification of two or three key issues facing agriculture and NAICC customers. The second day is putting that information to work.
"Each board and committee member makes appointments to visit their congressman and senators as well as other Ag Committee members and regulatory agencies," explained Allison Jones, executive vice president, NAICC. Even if there are no key issues, we go to introduce ourselves and remind them who we are. That night we have the Crawfish Boil."
It is that combination that makes NAICC efforts so successful, said Ray Young, the grand old man of NAICC Capitol Hill efforts. Young cut his teeth on government affairs in the 1980s while a Farm Credit Bank district board member. Later he used that experience to encourage NAICC board involvement in Washington. Young recalls when the first Crawfish Boil was held and has attended every year.
"It's a meet and greet," said Young. "We try to spend time with everyone who shows up. We don't talk about issues, simply get to know the people and build relationships with them. It doesn't matter who you know on Capitol Hill. It's who knows you."
The relationships built this way begin to pay dividends in the weeks and months ahead, noted Viator. "We can't be in Washington all year round, but we can pick up the phone and make contact with a legislator or key staffer overseeing agricultural issues. Over the years, we seem to have gotten more credibility. They see us as stakeholders. They recognize that we are making these efforts on our own time, so it must be important."
The Goal: Education
Viator pointed to last year's visit to Capitol Hill and the evening's Crawfish Boil. One of the main goals was to educate congressmen and staff on the potential impact of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. As the result of a January 2009 court case, the EPA was to require permits for application of already regulated and permitted pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) for control of aquatic plant pests. While EPA was going through the process of drafting permits and regulations, a bill to eliminate the requirement was drafted.
When NAICC made its Washington visit this past spring, the NPDES issue was front and center. When board members, GAC members and other interested members made their visits to congressional offices, NPDES and its effects were the topic of choice. What the independent crop consultants found was a vacuum that they quickly filled. Many of the congressmen and their staffs were aware of the bill but perhaps not its importance to grower constituents.
"We made sure everyone knew how important the issue was and how big it was," recalled Viator. "We encouraged them to sign on as co-sponsors. Within 24 hours, six of the congressmen we had visited with signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Sometimes you can't gauge the impact of a visit, but this time we did feel we had an impact."
Often times the impact is less apparent, but no less valuable. Viator noted that becoming known on Capitol Hill and in the offices of EPA and the USDA leads to roles where NAICC knowledge and grassroots contacts can make a difference. He chairs the IPM Pipe steering committee, which has developed a coordinated system between Extension, researchers and consultants for tracking key pests.
"Other consultants have been asked to be advisors on the steering committee, while still others serve on regional committees," said Viator. "These roles provide lots of contacts within the USDA, Extension, university researchers and industry companies and commodity groups. I believe our involvement has helped open their eyes to what we are doing as independent consultants on the ground. It also helps us see the big picture."
He emphasized that such involvement is equally important on the state and regional level. Although activity varies by state, Viator pointed to Louisiana and North Carolina as two states where NAICC members have the closest ties. He added that members in other states also have good connections with their state legislators and regulators, ties that are vital when issues arise.
"It is those ties that allow national board members and GAC members to get through to the legislators and meet with key people on an issue," said Viator. "We don't have those connections, but we can make them through independent consultants in those states that do have them."
The impact the NAICC members have communicating with key legislators on state and national levels is directly related to the consultants' intimate knowledge of agricultural issues and their impact on farmers and farm production. The issue knowledge comes in part from close relations with commodity and other ag industry groups, said Jones.
"We hired Glenn Luedke who recently retired from Farm Press publicaitons to track issues and provide a monthly report to the GAC members," she said. "We have monthly conference calls with various ag groups, such as the Pesticide Policy Coalition, spearheaded by CropLife America, where we review pending legislation. If it is an issue we agree on, we sign on to support action."
Jones expects the impact of NAICC members to strengthen in years ahead. The organization is introducing a leadership program for members. One component is how to interact and be a leader in Washington, D.C. Components of the program are used each year with attendees of the Washington meeting.
After many years of interacting in Washington, Young serves as a mentor to GAC and board members. He sees the visits to agency and congressional offices, combined with the Crawfish Boil, as having multiple benefits for NAICC members, customers and agriculture in general.
"Through the years we've gotten involved with the EPA and USDA on a number of issues where we can help them understand the issue and provide the real-time information they need because we have folks in every state with their hands on the pulse of agriculture," he said. "Our Crawfish Boil has a secondary, but equally important, impact on the agency and congressional staff. They get to know each other better too. They may work on the same issues, but they never meet in their official roles. There needs to be more of this kind of thing."
Young encouraged his fellow members to get involved on the state and national level with their representatives and to get to know agency people as well. While he is pleased the NAICC board understands the need and how beneficial NAICC can be, that is just the start, he said.
"If every NAICC member knew their congressman and at least one of their senators personally, we could move mountains," he added. "I don't know a group better qualified to lend a helping hand on ag issues than NAICC."