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YOUR BOOTS ON THE HILL: Prepping the soil before the 2017 Legislative Session

The proof is in the pudding; every year there are less boots with country dirt on the soles at our state capitol. 57 of Montana’s 100 House of Representative seats are within or partially within a AA school district. Equally shocking, Senate District 17 spans an impressive 276 miles from Havre to Bainville — two thirds of Montana’s Hi-Line gets one vote in our state Senate!

When our state legislative districts were re-mapped in 2013, we lost a mass of rural representation. Montana Farm Bureau sees the growing gap between rural Montana and our elected officials, and we see that as a desperate need for more farmers, ranchers and rural voices to get involved in the legislative process.

When the new year rolls around, we’ll pack our bags and head to Helena to be the lobbying voice of our 22,000 Montana Farm Bureau member-families. Our members set Farm Bureau policy at the county level, which is then voted on and approved at our state convention each year. That sets our lobbying agenda for each session.

We know our grassroots lobbying efforts are only effective when paired with constituent voices and participation from the farmers and ranchers we represent. So, this is the first of a weekly column where we’ll share highlights from Helena and updates on critical issues that need your input. We’ll share how you can get involved and where you can make a difference in this legislative session. Your voice matters.

Before we get there, we have to prep the soil. Our elected officials have been working in the off-season, attending interim committee meetings and preparing to make the most of the next four months in session. If we want our rural voices heard, we have to do the same.

Now is the time to introduce yourself to your elected officials if you haven’t already. This is especially important for the Representatives and Senators who do not come from rural backgrounds. Elected officials tell us over and over again that their constituent voices and opinions matter, and they’re looking for input on issues they’re not experts in. Be that expert. Be the farmer or rancher they listen and look to get a pulse on agricultural issues.

Reach out to them now, before they head to Helena. This can be as simple as an email, phone call or hand shake when you see them at a local event. Simply tell them who you are, where you’re from and a little bit about your background. Include areas you might have expertise in (Dealing with sage grouse? Been rounds with water laws? How about grazing permits? What do you farm/raise?), and what issues you are interested in. Find your legislator’s contact information at www.mfbf.org, then click on the “Leg. & Reg.” tab to find our “Legislator Lookup” function.

It’s important to get off on the right foot here. It’s a lot easier to talk about tough issues and ask for a vote from someone you’ve met and feel like you have some kind of relationship with. Wish them luck in the session and thank them for their service. Whether you agree with all their politics or not, it’s admirable for a regular citizen, just like you, to step up and take on this big job. Invite them to come to your next Farm Bureau meeting or community event so you can get to know each other on your home turf. They’ll remember that when you call or send a letter during the session.

Research important committee members now. Reach outside your own elected representatives and get to know the folks serving on the committee that most impact our industry. Your legislator may not be on the committee that matters most to your issues, and we can’t expect to pass/fail a bill by communicating with only one legislator. Find the committee makeups here: http://leg.mt.gov/css/Committees/. The elected officials serving on the Agriculture Committee may not have any background in agriculture. This opens up a great opportunity for you to call them up and make yourself a resource on agriculture issues!

Chelcie Cargill is Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of State Affairs. She’s an expert in policy development and implementation, and serves as MFBF’s staff coordinator for its Water and Animal Health Committees. Chelcie is a fifth-generation rancher from Sweet Grass County, Montana. In addition to lobbying full-time on behalf of farmers and ranchers across Montana, Chelcie and her husband are growing their own herd of commercial cattle and a professional fencing business. Chelcie can be contacted at (406) 587-3153 or chelciec@mfbf.org