NSAC's Blog

The Accidental Activist

October 30, 2008

Lisa Kivirist shares her personal first-time experience helping support new Farm Bill programs through providing input at the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) CSREES Public Meeting to Solicit Stakeholder Input in Washington DC on October 27, 2008. She and her family raise a diversified, organically-raised mix of fruits and vegetables on their Wisconsin farm and B&B, Inn Serendipity, which is powered 100% by renewable energy. Kivirist is the co-author of ECOpreneuring and Rural Renaissance and is a Kellogg Food & Society Policy Fellow. She regularly blogs for Green Options Media.

Lisa Kivirist and her son Liam, harvest onions on their farm in Wisconsin. Photo: John Ivanko

When my husband and I named our Wisconsin farm and B&B “Inn Serendipity” over a decade ago, we did so out of personal homage to the “serendipity” philosophy, that idea that life’s journey may take you in unexpected – magical – detours, often leading to places you never originally expected to be.

Build it and they will come. Name your business “serendipity” anything – and unexpected, fulfilling detours become the norm. Flash back fifteen years ago when I was on the cookie-cutter corporate cubicle career path; I never thought I’d be happily living the rural farming life. Flash back a year ago when I was realized I needed to sow seeds beyond our five acres if I was to truly take responsibility in creating a healthy, sustainable food systems and world for our seven year old son, Liam, to grow old in. I never thought I’d be speaking at the CSREES Public Meeting to Solicit Stakeholder Input in Washington, DC, a session designed to garner input for the new Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). Hence, I became the accidental activist, educating myself on these issues, finding outlets and channeling my inner Gandhi to “be the change you wish to see.”

Flash back to last Monday’s stakeholder input session, as I again serendipitously found myself giving five minutes of allotted input. With beet red-stained hands from our fall harvest the week before on our farm, at first I felt out of my element in a conference room of suited, experienced experts, seasoned in these issues. But I quickly learned there’s a definite chair for me, for all of us, at such a table. The voice of any of us – all of us – that support sustainable agriculture can find a direct outlet to help shape the policies of the new Farm Bill. Whether you grow, sell or eat, here are some tips I learned on channeling your inner activist:

1. Collaborate

My first connection was SAC, a national advocacy organization entrenched in these issues. Whatever your specific issue may be – from mine of beginning farmer support to healthy lunchroom options to community gardens – seek out the non-profit organization that works on educational outreach. SAC proved to be the ideal resource for me as, particularly with their weekly newsletter, they synthesized Farm Bill program status so I could quickly and efficiently get accurate information. Understandably, we’re all in our own way managing limited time resources. Find the group that can “cut it up and put it on a plate” for you, making the whole process of educating yourself on these issues much less daunting.

2. Seek a Venue

What’s the best means to get your message across to people who can influence the outcome? While connecting with Congressional representatives made strong sense last year when the Farm Bill was up for a vote and discussion, right now various USDA agencies are the ones who hold the authority to decide how these various grant and other programs will work and answer questions like: What types of programs will be funded? Who will review the applications?

Again, organizations like SAC can readily connect us with the appropriate venue to provide comments. Sometimes this is an in-person listening session at a specific place and time, such as last Monday’s hearing. Sometimes these venues are letter or on-line webinar options.

3. Share Authenticity

With nothing to lose during my five minutes of input, I spoke from my farmer heart, sharing my personal story, experiences and passions. I’m happy to say such a perspective seemed to be warmly welcomed. These stakeholder venues are designed to garner input from those who will be actively involved with and benefiting from these programs and funding – i.e., farmers.

I was also pleasantly surprised that the USDA program managers who ran Monday’s stakeholder meeting went above and beyond just listening to these five-minute input speeches: they had prepared questions and issues they wanted to address and brought to the group, sharing the positive spirit and intent of the BFRDP. I learned that even if something seems small or obvious to you, it may not be to the USDA. For example, group consensus clearly indicated that farmers should be included on the committees that review the grant proposals. Great idea – but I quickly added that if you want farmer input, don’t schedule these review sessions during the peak of the busy farming season. Seemed obvious to me, but I was keen to see the USDA folks taking notes.

4. Believe in the Process

Glass half full or half empty? Do you believe sharing your opinion in situations like these stakeholder input sessions carries weight in the final decision process – or not? I’m a Santa Claus supporting optimist myself; we need outlets of hope and vision to keep us focused on creating that change we seek. But, more importantly, our sustainable agriculture message will carry weight if more than one person is saying it. By the end of that stakeholder meeting, various themes came up multiple times by other growers and non-profit organizations, such as the importance of helping new farmers gain access to land and capital. These multiple messages start collectively adding up to a stronger, louder voice for change.

Categories: General Interest

One response to “The Accidental Activist”

  1. Denise says:

    Lisa, once again you have put succinctly words that will help folks understand how to get involved. I identified with you totally and had flashbacks of my own “firsts” in public policy.

    Denise O’Brien