By Rachel Bouressa, WFU At-Large Director
When you receive an invitation to the White House, you say "heck, yeah," and figure it out! It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I had just crossed the railroad tracks, coming out of Weyauwega on my way home from a Fleet Farm run when a (201) area code call appeared on my truck's screen. I half-expected it to be a spam call, but I was in a great mood and feeling chatty.
Well, I'm sure glad I answered the call AND that it didn't get dropped due to the cell service dead zone a couple of miles up because it was Aaron Shier calling from the National Farmers Union office. He said, "They're planning an event at the White House next week to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act and are looking for folks who have benefited from the funding. Have you participated in the programs, and would you be interested and available to attend? You'd be meeting the President." I replied, "Well, heck yeah, I would! AND the NRCS programs (EQIP, CSP, and RCPP) are programs I'm VERY familiar with. I would love the opportunity to represent Wisconsin Farmers Union, farmers, graziers, and speak to the benefits and need for these programs and partnerships." Aaron's response was, "Okay, great! We'll pass along your information to the White House, and you should be hearing from them." The call ended as I pulled into my farm driveway. I went about the rest of my day and evening chores, every once in a while it occurred to me, "I just got invited to the White House." Whether or not it was actually going to happen, it was still cool to get the invite. Later that night, I dropped, "I got invited to the White House to meet the President," in the family chat.
The next day I was on my way down to Madison for a hearing regarding university funding and a program that was cut. I was in a GrassWorks Conference Planning meeting, and I had to fill up with gas before getting on the interstate when I received another (301) area code call. I was BUSY, but how do you tell the White House you'll call them right back?! It was Will McIntee, senior advisor for public engagement at the White House. I gave him my information for a background check and, once again, went about my day wondering if this was REALLY going to happen.
Throughout that weekend, I had a 20% likelihood of this cool opportunity moving forward in my head. I'd been invited to attend and testify at the national level once before, but in the end, a male grain farmer from a larger operation in a different state got the final invite ahead of me. To be noted, he did a fantastic job and shared the same passion and points that I would have (but still).
Monday morning rolled in, and I still hadn't heard anything... it was hard to focus, let alone plan for the week... then at about 2:30 pm, I received an email with the official invite. So RAD! I scrambled to book my flight for the next day and get the farm, kids, and cows all squared away.
I arrived at Washington DC's Dulles International Airport late on Tuesday night. I'd never been to DC before, and riding the subway to my hotel, seeing the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, and the other landmarks on the map made it really sink in... a Wisconsin Farmer on a train, headed to the White House SOON. After checking in, I headed out to walk around and think about what I would say the next day. I found myself at the Washington Monument, thoughts still swirling a bit but honing in on my 5-minute elevator pitch for the need to support small, medium-sized farms, diverse and perennial farming, and the impact/benefits for the environment and rural communities. I walked by the White House and thought of myself inside the next day, trying my darndest not to say "hi" to all the security folks... "don't be that midwestern!" I thought to myself.
The next morning I went for a run with my #WisconsinFarmerStrong shirt on, did some work, then headed over to the National Farmers Union office to meet with the staff and other farmers who would be attending the event with me. The other farmers were Roger Noonan, Kyler Brown, and Gary Wertish. Roger is an organic vegetable farmer from New Hampshire, representing New England Farmers Union. Kyler Brown grows grains, potatoes (though small potatoes in comparison to most potato growers was the joke), and raises livestock in Colorado and was representing Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Gary Wertish is the President of Minnesota Farmers Union. We talked and shared about our operations, experiences with drought, various USDA programs, and all the other topics that come up when you get farmers together. We all got along like peas in a pod, herdmates, saw eye-to-eye like a sack of potatoes. Around noon, we hopped in an Uber, and headed over to the White House.
I'm pretty sure it sunk in earlier, but standing by the gate of the White House with the group was just surreal... only to get even more so. Once we cleared security, we headed to the Medical wing for COVID tests. It was neat to chat with the "active duty" medical personnel about how they enjoyed serving a portion of their tour at the White House. To the person administering the COVID swabs, I asked, "so you do this all day?", and they replied, "yep, all day." We all passed the test and headed up to the Press Room.
We were escorted through the halls and up the stairs, where there was a military string band in formal uniform warming up for the reception to follow. Then into the room where the press conference was going to take place. They walked us on stage and put blue dots where we were to stand. I was going to be right behind the President. Holy moly!
The next hour was spent talking with the other farmers and attendees. There were representatives from a wide range of union groups: steamfitters, electrical workers, teachers, folks that worked in the energy sector, and others. It was really interesting to learn about how policy and programs impacted those sectors, as it's easy to be so narrowly and hyper-focused within one's own profession and circles (and passions). As we mingled, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came through to greet us and thank us for attending. Our group was called to gather as President Biden came through, shook hands, greeted, and thanked us as well.
Time both flew by and stood still at the same time, one of a few comparisons I have to other "big moments" in life. Next thing we knew, we were headed onto the stage. The room was packed! All the news/press outlets were there, along with many representatives that I recognized in the room and other distinguished guests. The next 18 minutes I was on stage, listening intently, and incredibly self-aware. So nerve-wracking yet exciting. What a rush. And then it was over, final applause, we were walked off stage and into a formal reception. There were snacks, very fancy snacks right out of the White House kitchen... ooh la la. More mingling and trying to soak in the moment, as well as the history of the space... all the other events and occasions, famous, powerful, influential people that had stood on that carpet and within those walls. After a while, the other farmers and I were getting antsy to get outside, so we made our way out... It was then I wished I'd taken more pictures, eaten more snacks, stayed longer... the once-in-a-lifetime experience was coming to an end as fast as the whirlwind to get there.
I didn't really get the opportunity to give my five-minute elevator pitch for full support of funding for NRCS programs that incentivize managed grazing, perennial and diverse agriculture... the need for these programs to compensate farmers for the many ecosystem services that these systems offer (soil stabilization and formation, increased water infiltration, thus less runoff and nutrient impact on surface and groundwater, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and availability (less inputs applied), biodiversity, and wildlife habitat). Nor was I able to give my line that "agriculture comprises 40% of our nation's landscape, and that we as farmers have an incredible role and responsibility to be stewards of the land... it can't all be corn and CAFOs"... but I will keep talking and taking these invites and incredible opportunities with appreciation every chance I can get.