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Farmers turn the soil and unearth important issues

LANSING, MI -- Because their schedules aren't quite full enough with spring planting under way, Michigan farmers are lurching headlong into their annual cultivation of legislative issues. Across the state, crop, fruit, vegetable and livestock producers are throwing open the farm gates and welcoming state and federal lawmakers, both to school them in modern agricultural practices and to bend their ears on key issues facing the industry.

It's in this busy time of year Michigan Farm Bureau's (MFB) grassroots policy development process begins to take shape, with growers' minds in high gear and long hours in tractor cabs.

Despite being in the middle of planting hundreds of acres of tomatoes, Branch County grower Brian Acmoody last week hosted a visit from Dist. 3 Congressman Justin Amash.

"We strive to get lawmakers out on farms whenever they're home in their districts," said John Kran, who, as MFB's national legislative counsel, is more accustomed to working with Michigan's congressional delegation on Capitol Hill and in the corridors of D.C. office buildings.

"I can brief members of Congress in Washington until I'm blue in the face, but there's really no substitute for getting them out here, speaking face-to-face with our farmers," Kran said.

In addition to showing how he and his workers are planting this year's tomato fields, Acmoody bent Amash's ear on high-priority agricultural issues like access to technology and the increasingly dire need for comprehensive, federal-level immigration reform.

"We beat this drum every year, I know--louder and louder--but until we find some kind of serious fix for our broken immigration system, farmers nationwide will continue to suffer from a serious labor shortage," Kran said.

"The USDA just recently confirmed what those of us in the industry have been saying for years--that there's a surplus of job opportunities at practically every level of agriculture, from skilled field work to advanced positions in genetics, engineering and other developing technologies."

The following day and well to the north and west, Allegan County dairyman Brian Geerlings hosted Michigan Dist. 26 State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker and Clay McCaul from the office of U.S. Representative Fred Upton. After taking part in MFB's Lansing Legislative Seminar in February, Geerlings said he better realized the value and importance of forging strong relationships with elected officials.

President of Allegan County Farm Bureau, Geerlings showed his guests the ins and outs of his family's Scenic View Dairy near Fennville. Alongside his father and cousin, he showed off the operation's modern milking parlor, milk house, cow barns and feed storage facilities. Schuitmaker and McCaul also got a first-hand look at field cultivation and corn planting, as well as Scenic View's state-of-the-art methane digester, which converts the organic matter in livestock manure into a combustible biogas used to generate electricity.

"This is another example of the kind of thing we want our elected officials see for themselves," Kran said.

"We crow a lot about being good stewards of the land, maximizing available resources and supporting renewable energy--but again, there's no better way to illustrate farmers' commitment to those ideals than to show them how it's working on a real farm."

Kran continued his visits this week, touring farms in Lenawee and Monroe counties with staffers from U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow's office. Other Farm Bureau staffers are organizing farm tours for Dist. 81 Rep. Dan Lauwers and members of his agriculture committee in the Michigan House of Representatives. Tentatively scheduled for mid-June, that group will examine the state's prodigious dairy sector from several different angles, including a large dairy farm, commercial milk processing plant and a sweet visit to the MSU Dairy Store.

A breakfast-themed tour will visit potato, tomato and pork producers as well as a major cereal maker. And a dinner-themed tour for lawmakers is also in the works.