AFR Going Global - AFR Member Joins Global Policy Effort

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You never know where your policy journey will take you. That’s something Woodward County AFR Member Tim Bates learned firsthand this January when he traveled to Berlin, Germany, to represent National Farmers Union (NFU) on the global stage.

Bates joined 19 other young farmers and ranchers from 17 countries as part of the International Young Farmers’ Forum at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), an annual event that brings together agricultural ministers from more than 70 countries. The young producers are convened to bring a beginning or young producer’s perspective to the GFFA.

In addition to the Young Farmers’ Forum, the 2023 GFFA included the 15th Berlin Agriculture Ministers’ Conference and several days of high-level global agriculture policy discussions. Tim and other Young Farmers’ Forum participants watched the proceedings, but were not allowed to join in the discussions.

“It’s the conference for ag ministers from all over the world,” said Tim. “All the ministers are in this huge room with a huge round table and each flag. We could look, but couldn’t go in.”

A formal kick-off event hosted by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture marked the start of the GFFA. It was followed by an evening reception for “foreign guests of honor,” where the Young Farmers’ Forum participants rubbed shoulders with foreign dignitaries.

“All the ministers were in that room,” said Tim. “They were talking amongst each other. Some of the women—probably from African countries—had hats and big, beautiful chains and huge necklaces. They just looked like royalty. They must have been because they had security. And, we were all just amongst them.”

Tim interacted with several of these dignitaries during the week, including the president of the World Farmers Organization and agriculture ministers from Norway and Bangladesh.

“The ag minister of Bangladesh came up and looked at my hat,” said Tim. “He asked ‘From the U.S.A.?’ That hat sparked a lot of conversations.”

Tim’s cowboy hat set him apart not just from other forum participants, but from the entire city of Berlin.

“Three million people in Berlin and I bet he was the only one wearing a cowboy hat,” said Kelsey, Tim’s wife who traveled with him. “He stuck out like a sore thumb. Even when we were going through the airport in New York, people were staring.”

Green Week

The Young Farmers’ Forum and the GFFA were the kick of to International Green Week—Grüne Woche. The highlight of the annual event is an enormous trade show featuring food and agricultural products from around the world.

“One of the workers said there were 4,000 vendors,” said Tim. “You can’t fathom how big it was. There were probably 15 buildings. It was all indoors, there was nothing outside.

“We walked three miles that one day and only went down one side of the building,” said Kelsey. “They had all kinds of stuff. Lots of people dressed up in traditional garb.”

“It’s like the world’s biggest state fair,” said Tim.

“It was a lot of German food,” said Kelsey. “But, one whole side was food from other countries. Every country had a booth.”

Ever the farmer, Tim was interested in the technology on display. “They did have a lot of agriculture products. They don’t have big stuff like we do here, but they’re a lot more efficient than we are. They use everything.”

Specifically, both Tim and Kelsey were impressed with an implement that injects slurry (hog farm waste) into farm ground. They described it as similar to an air seeder.

Not to be outdone by alternative fertilizers, alternative fuels for farm equipment were also highlighted.

“They had this tractor that isn’t available in the U.S., but it’s very similar to what we run,” said Tim. “It was multi-fuel. The vendor said, ‘They’re making it where you can use vegetable oil and stuff like that.’ I thought that was really cool. Of course, it’s not available in the States yet. We’re behind. We’re behind on a lot of things.”

Getting Down to Business

The diverse group of young agriculturalists were tasked with responding to difficult questions related to the main topic of this year’s GFFA—“Transforming food systems: A global response to multiple crises.” The group was given three prompts dealing with resiliency, sustainability and collaboration to answer in a joint statement to be presented in front of the agriculture ministers.

Although the group met virtually beforehand and even drafted a document, the early meetings did not spark confidence.

“They wanted to complete the statement over Zoom, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” said Bates. “They spoke English, but it’s hard trying to understand accents over a computer.”

Bates convinced the group to wait until they could discuss in person. This proved fruitful; the group ultimately collaborated to produce a four-page joint statement, although the going wasn’t easy. Much of the difficulty stemmed from culture and language barriers.

“I love policy,” said Bates. “It was rough; it was 12 hours. But, I loved it. You learn so much…Each of us came in with different knowledge…As a group, we each had our own knowledge base of what we do. As we explained to others in the group, we all understood each other better.”

Even with an atmosphere of mutual respect, the discussions weren’t easy. The prompts provided by the GFFA leaned into difficult, controversial topics, such as creating crisis-proof, climate-friendly and sustainable food systems.

The prompts worried Kelsey. “I was afraid it was going to be Tim against the world,” said Kelsey. “But out of 20, only two participants were ‘out there.’”

An Oklahoma Perspective

Even with level heads in the room, tough conversations started early with a discussion of Oklahoma’s top two industries.

Tim was alarmed by a draft of the statement that pushed for the removal of fossil fuel from agricultural production and a reduction in beef consumption due to methane concerns.

“Right off the bat, I was like that isn’t going to work.”

“I was very vocal about how I’m in support of the oil and gas industry. It’s a very big part of Oklahoma. Obviously the beef side is, too. I told them I drive around with ‘Eat Beef’ on my pickup. Here, that’s part of being a farmer and rancher.”

Ultimately, the oil and gas industry and beef production conversations went well for Tim.

“Nobody understood oil and gas except me,” said Tim. “But, most of them compromised easily…I explained how oil and gas isn’t bad, how industrialized farming isn’t bad. It may sound bad or look bad on paper, but that’s not reality…It’s just like beef producers. We’re not out there to destroy the environment, but that’s how they see us.”

“They were comparing oil and gas to their coal industry,” said Kelsey.

A conversation with the participant from South Africa provided clarity to the conversation.

We conversed about fossil fuels and mining coal. I told him how the oil and gas industry in America works and he told me about how the coal industry where he is from destroys the land…So for the statement, we agreed upon let’s not strip the land of everything, but let’s have responsible mining.”

Some forum participants pushed to emphasize the promotion of electric farm equipment.

“I said ‘It’s not feasible,’” said Tim. “I told them we have big tractors and big equipment. You may run it 20 hours a day or it may never shut off. The tractors just keep running. But, some of those people are from poor countries. They have a garden, so they didn’t understand.”

When it came to beef production, Tim did have some participants on his side.

“There were about four of us that could really relate to each other—they were from New Zealand/Australia, Norway, Ukraine and me. The girl from Georgia and the chicken farmer from Japan kind of understood. The guy from South Africa was also on our side; he was a big producer. There were just a handful of us that talked; everybody else just joined our side.”

“They were understanding that we have to have it—we’re not just going to do away with beef,” said Tim. “But, they also just agreed with me because they didn’t really understand the industry—Oklahoma’s beef industry, or America’s beef industry for that matter. There was nobody there that represented that except me.”

When some participants wanted to include ending industrialized farming as part of the joint statement, Tim spoke up again.

“I said, ‘Explain ‘industrialized farming.’ They said, ‘You know, like feedlots.’ I said ‘We have to have feedlots. That’s just part of it.’ That’s a very critical part of the beef industry.”

At another point in the discussions, the language barrier sparked confusion.

“The statement draft said they wanted to give landless people more access to land. And I thought ‘So you want to come take my land? Why would you give land to someone who’s landless?’ Well, what they call ‘landless’ is a renter.

“…So, there were definitely some language barriers. Some of the things they said in English had different meanings from how we say it and what we mean here…But, once everyone explained their definition, we were fine.”

“We worked on those questions for 12 hours. I had to compromise. There were some things I did not agree with, but all in all, I think it turned out well.

The Real Conversation

For many in the young farmers group, the comradery was immediate.

“Some participants weeded themselves out pretty quick,” said Tim. “But for the rest of us, when we all spoke, we were all respectful to each other. When I spoke, they listened. When they spoke, I listened. We fed off each other. Their views were a little different than mine, but they explained why. Just like I explained as to why or what we do.”

“We would all sit and talk because it’s so interesting to hear how they live—what their lives are like,” said Kelsey. “They would show us on the map where their farms are. Like the dairy farmer from Norway—her kitchen view is the ocean and her farm is right on the coast. They catch lobster and crab—fresh seafood all the time.”

While the GFFA had provided prompts for the young farmers to respond to, the real conversation happened during these after-hours discussions at the hotel.

“This is the stuff that should have been in the statement, not the stuff they asked us to put in there,” said Tim. “These side talks—everybody had the same issues.

“Input costs are expensive everywhere. It costs so much money to operate, so much money to grow crops. We all felt that way. Especially with the war, the price of fertilizer, the price of fuel and everything else—we’re all taking a direct hickey.”

The farming participants all felt the cost of equipment was too high. “Everybody said the dealerships, they’re gauging us. It’s the exact same problem…the cost of what equipment costs is so unaffordable.”

One of the few points of consensus for the group was the need for country-of-origin labeling.

“Everybody was pretty much on board with COOL…Every country wants to know—If I’m buying garlic from China and I live in Georgia, I want to know the garlic from China came from China. We were all in agreeance to that.

“If there’s something that might cost a bit more, but it’s from local farmers, they’re going to spend a little bit more money, just because they know where it’s from and how it was raised. That was the entire group—all the way across the board.

“It’s very important, especially for American beef producers. We take pride in our products. We take pride in the way we raise our products.”

“Our group was very like-minded to our Fairness for Farmers campaign. We had to answer the prompts, but while we were answering them, we talked about the struggles we face. A lot of us have the same struggles and the same things we’re battling all over the world.

“For basically everybody—It was the profit gap from the retail to the farmer…Market transparency, the true cost of what farmers have in their products versus what people think they have.

“I guess it made me feel better that there are people from around the world dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with here in Oklahoma, or even on a U.S. basis. They’re dealing with the same stuff, just in a different part of the world.

Leaving a Legacy

Like many conversations about farming, the evening discussions turned to the future.

“Another thing we found to be a worldwide problem is how to make agriculture more attractive to young people,” said Tim. “That was a problem everywhere. Because, who wants to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It’s either in you or it’s not.”

The group came up with several reasons for the lack of young people interested in agriculture. From financing and land access to knowledge transfer, the reasons echoed the problems in the United States.

“Just like here; just like in Mutual,” said Tim. “The reason we’ve gotten as much land as we have is because all these old farmers retire and their kids have moved to the city. They’re not going to come back.”

Also similar to the U.S., many of the participants were part of a family operation or had inherited their land.

“We’re about the only ones I know of who started our operation,” said Tim. “…We’re living it. We’re doing it. I write the checks. I have to figure out how to make this work.”

Tim did acknowledge that he had more help than some of the young farmers in the group.

“I’m very fortunate. My old farmer friends that I rent ground from—they’re retired. They don’t have anything else to do but show up at the shop and impart wisdom. I do have that….Other people don’t have that knowledge sharing. They kind of felt like it was a vacuum. Whereas, I feel like I have more support.”

Another way Tim felt he was more fortunate than the other young farmers was in his access to policy.

“Policy, that’s a big thing for them. I told them the group I’m involved with meets with lawmakers and we tell them what we want. They don’t have that; they don’t have an avenue. Apparently, there’s a lot of countries that won’t listen to farmers and so they make laws without their input. But here, we’ve got a voice. Now, we need to maintain that voice to keep that voice. And, it may get harder and harder with the age gap now. Those old guys, they’re still standing at the mic. That’s one thing I’m glad for.”

A Policy Journey

It was one of these older mentors that pushed Tim to get involved in agricultural policy.

“That was one thing I thought about while I was there—Terry Peach. He basically kicked me in the butt and said we’ve got to have young people stand up. I never thought I’d end up in Germany. I didn’t even know what ag policy was until I went down to my first AFR policy meeting. I loved it. But, I had no idea that even existed.”

Tim’s policy journey began in 2020 when he let Terry Peach talk him into serving on the AFR Policy Committee. Because of Covid, one year of service turned into two and Tim participated in the NFU (virtual) Legislative Fly-In from the cab of his tractor.

By spring of 2022, Tim had his policy legs. He lobbied at AFR Day at the Capitol, served as a policy delegate to national convention, and traveled to Washington, D.C., for NFU Advocacy Training, which includes board and communications training and lobbying lawmakers one-on-one.

“Before I feel I was kind of shy. I don’t think I talked very much at our first policy meeting. I was never one to do that kind of thing, but now if there’s something we don’t agree on, I’m going to say it.”

Tim’s newfound voice served him well during his time in Germany.

“He was definitely a leader in the group,” said Kelsey. “They would ask his opinion and talk to him. Everyone would listen when he spoke. It made me really proud to watch him.

“There’s a lot of people that think the way we do, but there’s not a lot of people willing to take that next step of doing stuff like this. Taking time away from their families and their operations. Going and doing the hard stuff of actually making change. Everyone wants to just talk about it, but there’s not a lot of young people that feel capable of doing what Tim did.”

“It’s been very good,” said Tim. “I’m so grateful for what I’ve been able to do through AFR. It took me halfway across the world and I’ve learned so much. It just changed my whole perspective. The world’s a lot smaller than I realized, and we’re all in the same boat.”

“I never had any desire to leave US soil. But, I’m glad that you guys pushed me.”


Inset: Participants

(Tim) Who are the countries you had the most commonality with? It surprised me, but Norway. She’s a dairy farmer. It’s been in their family since the 1700s.

(Tim) [The guy from Ukraine…was nervous about taking air or train, so he just drove. It was about 1800 km (1,100 mi) in a little Volkswagen. It took him three days to navigate…across borders…and through check points. He showed me drone footage of the farm ground he consults for. It’s just bomb hole after bomb hole. He said 40% of Ukraine’s farm ground is not usable now. 40%.

Who else was part of this year’s GFFA Young Farmer Forum?

Costa Rica - Runs a Cooperative that helps local farmers who raise coffee and sugar cane.

                Ukraine – Crop Consultant.

                Norway – Dairy Farmer

Australia – Dairy, Lobbyist

South Africa – Very large farm – soybeans, corn, etc.

Georgia – Ag rep

Italy – Goats for cheese and vineyard

Japan – Chicken Farmer

Chili pepper with seasoning blend