Know the issues and make yourself available to share them. Policy experts share their tips for success.
When it comes to government, be it federal or local, it’s safe to say that things can get complicated, fast.
And the worst part about it? Policymaking never stops or takes a break — it’s always evolving and changing, morphing into something that might be good for industry or something that can be harmful.
The seed industry is no stranger to a constantly changing environment, but there’s some work to be done to keep up with all the policies concerning our industry at the federal and state levels.
Luckily, there are a few experts in the industry who are full of knowledge and are charged with keeping up. The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and the Texas Seed Trade Association (TSTA) are willing to share a few of their secrets to help us participate in policymaking better and become better leaders for the seed industry.
They share three takeaways to working with different governments, be it local, state or federal. No. 1: Don’t be scared to get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved both legislatively and regulatorily. No. 2: Learn the process to make sure your message is timely. No. 3: Make sure to stay up-to-date on all things happening policy-wise, and never think anything is completely safe.
With these three ideas in the back of your mind, you can start working to advocate for the seed industry.
Get Involved in Crucial Work
When asked if working within governmental processes is beneficial to the seed industry, Bryan Gentsch, executive vice president of the TSTA, and Denise Gentsch, legislative director of the TSTA, say that it’s not only beneficial, it’s critical.
“We need to be proactive and not reactive,” Bryan Gentsch says. “You really have to know how to approach lobbying. Denise uses her relationships to develop strategy — she understands the process.”
Denise Gentsch adds that Bryan provides the technical expertise. They both agree that it all comes down to communicating in a precise manner.
“Denise gets me in front of the right people, in the right order, with the right message and I deliver it,” Bryan Gentsch says. “We have outsized influence because we make noise, we’re extremely active and we do so in a precise manner. We receive more attention than would be warranted by our membership numbers alone.”
Denise Gentsch says the most important thing she’s learned is to know what your opposition is saying and explain why your position is supportable.
“Always tell the truth, back it up with facts and have solutions ready for your problems if they’re available,” she says. “Sometimes, there are cases when a solution has not been determined but providing the solution and following up is the best approach. Legislators want you to bring them solutions to your problems.”
John Latham, president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds and second vice president of ASTA, couldn’t agree more that the seed industry benefits greatly by working closely with the government.
“There are so many senators and members of Congress who don’t have agriculture backgrounds anymore,” he says. “We need to build understanding for our industry in the halls of Congress.”
ASTA encourages members to get involved with members of Congress through its SeedFirstPAC and Storm the Hill.
“SeedFirstPAC was a political action committee formed in 2015 to help build and support members of Congress that support the seed industry,” Latham says. “ASTA’s Storm the Hill is really important in building relationships with members of Congress, but Seed First PAC is a tool to take these relationships to the next level, especially when key pieces of legislation is being considered.”
To get involved at a local level, Bryan Gentsch says to serve on a local school board or a water district.
“Many our members serve on their local school boards,” he says. “In small communities, that isn’t always a difficult seat to win, but it gives them an idea of how the democratic process works. It provides great close-to-home examples of how difficult it can be to get consensus, but also how easy it can be. Talking to your own state senator or representative as a local elected official gives you great credibility.”
Denise Gentsch said they have some members who occasionally run for other offices as well.
“One of our past presidents decided to run for city council and won,” she says. “Agricultural groups in Texas are also pushing for those who have the resources to recruit people to run for legislature or to contribute their knowledge of agriculture by running themselves.”
Bryan Gentsch says half the battle after getting involved is learning the issues.
“It’s hard to say how much time we spend looking at regulatory issues, but it’s definitely more than half of what we do,” he says. “It’s not necessarily intuitive. If you aren’t paying attention, then things can happen without notice. The invisible hand sometimes makes things happen and that’s politics.”
Currently, Bryan Gentsch says that the TSTA is watching artificial trade barriers and new trade issues.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure seed sales are consistent. We need to make sure that we can use the best new technologies and breeding techniques to do that, and that those techniques don’t end up as a barrier for seed companies.”
Another policy Bryan Gentsch would love to see amended is portions of the Seed Law.
“Those laws have been in place since 1939 and haven’t changed much since,” he says. “They need to be opened up to chat about how they’re enforced. We’ve been working on that in Texas, and it’s not proving easy, but it’s not impossible.”
Denise Gentsch says the biggest problem she continues to see are advocacy groups working to change laws concerning agriculture that have an agenda contrary to the right to farm. Bryan Gentsch remembers what a former sales manager once told him. “If you are not in front of your customers then you can bet your competitors are.”
“At the state level, we have to maintain scrutiny over groups trying to change or increase regulations that affect the seed industry,” she says. “As an example, a friend of ours in the legislature recently dropped a pollinator bill that would create an “advisory council” giving it undue authority to bring attention to pesticides used on crops. This legislator tries to be helpful to agriculture but sometimes is used. Those who want to shift policy unfavorable to our interests work behind the scenes every day in ever so subtle ways.”
Denise Gentsch says never to look away from policies — there’s always something that can pop up, even if you think that it could never change.
As an example, Bryan Gentsch says that in Texas, there’s a common misconception that Texas is a “rural” state, and nothing bad will ever happen to agriculture.
“We’re not rural anymore — we’re urban,” he says. “If you think urban legislatures will take care of agriculture, you’re wrong.”
By staying informed and working to get your voice heard, the daunting task of lobbying can become a little easier.