Work of building relationships never stops

By Michelle Hennings
Executive Director, Washington Association of Wheat Growers

Boy, does time fly by. 

I can’t believe it’s already time for my executive director column. The past six months have been busy with travel, meetings, and working many issues. We’ve done farm bill fly-ins to Washington, D.C.; participated in multiple workgroups and a Food for Peace event; organized a congressional tour of the river system; participated in multiple dam advocacy events; and celebrated a huge transportation grant for our short-line rails. 

The farm bill is at the top of everyone’s agenda in D.C. We ended up with a one-year extension, which isn’t ideal, but we are working diligently to stay in front of leadership, making sure they are aware that we don’t want to see an extension for very long — we all remember the 2008 bill that was extended multiple times — and that we need a new and improved bill so family farms can continue supplying our nation’s food in a sustainable manner. Fly-ins are vital when dealing with these big, congressional issues and bringing farmers to meet legislators and staff to tell the ag story IS effective. Congress wants to hear, not read, about real-life farm stories on the issues at hand and learn how they affect your farm. Getting in front of our leadership, educating them firsthand, fostering a relationship of trusted knowledge, and making an impact on the decisions they make on behalf of Washington wheat farmers is what the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) is all about.

Workgroups at the state level have been a WAWG priority these past six months. One of the groups we participated in was with the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) to find a way to apply our ag fuel exemption that was included — but never implemented — in the cap-and-trade legislation. What a frustrating process for all parties involved. Farmers have paid thousands of dollars in extra fuel charges since January of 2023, and they still haven’t been reimbursed or even have a plan from the state to get reimbursed. We have advocated for a solution and relayed to legislative leaders this must happen, but to my dismay, I don’t see a quick resolution coming. Although the workgroup process wasn’t as productive as I would have expected, it was important for us to be at a table that included different views to discuss and educate the group on what farmers need and to develop relationships to work further to find solutions.

In August, we attended a Food for Peace event in Longview, Wash. It was a great way to celebrate the fight against global hunger, wheat farmers’ contributions to the humanitarian effort, and building positive relationships with other countries. It also set the stage for the American Farmers Feed the World Act, which would refocus the Food for Peace program on using U.S. commodities instead of cash donations or buying those commodities from other countries. Washington state plays a big role in supporting wheat exports and food aid contributions. 

I won’t deny it — a lot, and I mean a lot of my time has been spent advocating for our transportation system and keeping the lower Snake River dams intact. A brief list includes:

  • Giving testimony in Richland, Wash., for a U.S. House Natural Resource Committee field hearing.
  • Providing written comments and attending Council on Environmental Quality listening sessions.
  • Writing multiple letters reinforcing our position that we need to be at the table during any kind of negotiations.
  • Strategizing with other Pacific Northwest ag groups as a coalition effort to educate legislators and Congress on the implications of dam removal.
  • Taking part in a multitude of media engagements, issuing press releases, and writing letters to state and federal leaders.
  • Organizing a congressional staffer tour of Lower Granite Dam and the Port of Clarkston. 

That dam tour was a highlight of the past six months. We invited congressional staffers who are on House and Senate committees that will have a say in the fate of the dams, like the Natural Resources committees, the Transportation and Infrastructure committees, the Energy and Commerce committees, the Water Resources and Environment subcommittees, and the Agriculture committees, just to name a few. We also had staffers from Pacific Northwest legislators, along with staffers from key legislators who reside on those committees. Both sides of the aisle were well represented. A key point we wanted to make was that the lower Snake River dams aren’t just a regional issue, but a national issue, as it will affect growers throughout the Midwest. To make that point, we invited national stakeholders to also attend and talk to the staffers. Besides touring the dam and seeing the ways the dam helps with fish passage, we also showcased the entire transportation system with top notch speakers who educated the staffers from start to finish on Marine Highway 84. 

The day was long but full of knowledge and information they could take back to D.C. and share with their committees and Congress. Feedback was very positive, and one thing we heard over and over was, “I’ve always read about the dams and the system and developed an opinion, but, really, until you actually see the system in person, it is a WOW moment.”  Hearing this gave me a sense of accomplishment, although I know this is only a small step to any kind of success. The relationships and networking that occurred due to this tour has turned not only WAWG, but other river system stakeholders, into reliable sources of data for Congress to access when needed. I’m proud and thankful for all who volunteered their time and energy to make this a seamless, successful event.  

As you can see, I have a common theme throughout this column — relationships. Relationship building is the foundation of what I do at WAWG, and it’s hard work. You spend the time and energy building relationships and contacts, and then, suddenly, there’s a change in administration or someone makes a career change, and it can be overwhelming to feel like you are back to square one and have to start over with someone new. We need relationships in all areas of our life — business, personal, family, and neighbors. It’s something we all do. Some people are more successful than others at it, but it’s a part of life. I enjoy meeting new people, but it’s something you have work at it, even if you have an outgoing personality.

I had an amazing experience a couple of months ago. I was at a river governance meeting in Montana when I introduced myself to an urban state legislator. We had great conversations on life in general and learned about each other’s background and families. It was very gratifying. We talked about various issues as we both work in the political area and had great conversations on many topics we had in common. At first, I was nervous, because I know I’m very passionate about WAWG’s needs for transportation and infrastructure. I knew we weren’t going to see eye to eye on many aspects of this issue, but, in fact, we actually had many things in common and were able to talk honestly and respectfully. 

What I learned from that experience is even if you know you don’t agree with someone on all the issues, the value of finding common ground and getting to know them as a person will soften the hard line drawn in the sand. This develops respect and nurtures an environment where constructive discussions can take place that benefit both parties in situations where beliefs and needs are very different. Right now, with so many divisive issues, our nation feels like it is being pulled in opposite directions. Maybe we all need to step outside our comfort zone and engage with others who are on the opposite side of an issue. We might be surprised at the outcome. We won’t always be successful, but if we don’t take the step forward, we’ll never know.