Elected officials and leaders from throughout the region swapped their dress shoes for boots Thursday as they visited Lewis County farms on the second annual Tour of Ag. In fields and barns around the county, they heard from local farmers about their operations, the challenges they face and the policies they believe would help their businesses succeed.
The tour was hosted by the Lewis County Farm Bureau, with sponsorship this year from the Lewis County Economic Development Council. Organizer Maureen Harkcom demonstrated the interest of local leaders in learning about the agriculture industry.
“I’m trying to get centers of influence, so they understand what agriculture is and what we go through,” she said. “In Lewis County especially, where it’s family farms, how do we stay afloat and keep these people alive and able to support their families and community?”
Several dozen leaders joined the tour, traveling together by bus to four different farming operations in the county.
At the Cowlitz Meadows Dairy in Randle, co-owner Russ McMahan stood in his barn, surrounded by a semi-circle of leaders, as cows wandered behind them. He talked about his decision to join the Organic Valley Farms coop, as well as the cycle of regulations and subsidies that he believes is creating challenges for farmers. Following the tour, he said he was grateful so many leaders had turned out to hear his story.
“It was emotional, gratifying. I really appreciate it,” he said. “(They need) some understanding of what position we’re in. We need to be able to survive on our own, not because they’re helping us. The more freedom we have, the more adjustments we can make.”
Mike Peroni, project manager of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, said that kind of understanding is exactly what the tour is designed to facilitate.
“To get out and see these things on the ground, especially for the legislators and policymakers, who are able to hear directly from the farmer’s mouth about what those policy issues are and what they might do to change them and encourage and support agriculture in this community, is abs marvelous,” he said. “You can’t help but learn a little something when you do something like this.”
At the Cowlitz Falls Lavender Company in Randle, the group heard from Justin Claibourn, who’s new to agriculture himself. He and his family recently launched their operation, and he said it’s been a learning experience.
“We’re first-generation farmers,” he said. “I learn a lot about farming the hard way. I don’t have a lot of tutors or a lot of help.”
He said elected officials can help by making simpler and clearer rules and regulations.
“It’s hard to figure out what we can and can’t do,” he said. “As a new business owner, as a new farmer, a new bookkeeper, a new IT person, a new marketing person, it’s been real difficult to navigate that.”
The tour included several legislators from throughout Washington state, envoys from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Port of Chehalis, Centralia College and the office of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. Several local elected officials were in attendance as well.
In addition to helping leaders learn about agriculture, the tour presents an opportunity for farmers to connect with policymakers and get a better understanding of the laws that affect them, said Ryan Ells, president of the Lewis County Farm Bureau.
“Our main goal is to get a little more hands-on for anyone who is involved in an economic development situation,” he said, adding that the group hopes to include a new group of farmers on the tour each year. “That gives more farmers a chance to meet with local representatives, with government elected people. Now we have farmers that are getting to have that experience.”
In addition to the new connections between farmers and officials, many noted that the tour also gave farmers a better understanding of what some of their counterparts are doing.
“It’s the idea of educating people,” Harkcom said. “Even within ag, I grew up on a dairy. I don’t know anything about wheat farming or hops. We’re different expertises, different knowledge.”