How many cattlemen can say they might have launched a politician’s career? That’s the story offered by Kevin Carstensen, an Odebolt, Iowa cattle feeder who’s been promoting producer interests in the political arena since the early 80s. One of his first public actions was to testify in front of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission on measures designed to protect the state’s waters; afterwards, he says, “I sat down in Steve King’s construction company office and related some of my experiences with the EPC and the DNR, and he to this day attributes that three-hour conversation we had one afternoon in his construction office of getting into politics.” King, of course, is now U.S. Rep Steve King (R-Iowa).
In the years since then, Carstensen has been president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Private Properties and Environmental Management Committee. And he’s been to Washington about a dozen times. “Every time I go out there I feel more comfortable,” he says, “because I kind of know my way around and know how to get to these guys, and be able to go ahead and visit with them.”
Over the years, he’s also established connections with his state’s Congressional delegation, EPA officials, and the Environmental Defense Fund, a private organization that provides a bridge between the environmental and business communities. “They’re a pretty interesting group of folks to work with,” Carstensen says, “because about 70% of the time they’re kind of on our side, and the other 30% they’re on the other side. But they’ve been very, very helpful in the past.” And, he adds, they look at cattlemen as fellow environmentalists—a rarity among environmental groups.
There are times when Carstensen knows his arguments on Capitol Hill or at the EPA aren’t swaying any opinions, but he says there’s still value in the exercise. “After several times of meeting with them, they put a face to the industry, and we need more of that in this country,” he says. In particular, he says his state’s senior U.S. Senator, Chuck Grassley, “knows that when I walk in the room I’m there probably lobbying cattle issues. It takes time to build those kinds of relationships.”
For his part, Grassley says any group that wants to make an impression with him would be best served to send people from his home state. He says, “I always say if a lobbyist in Washington is worth their money they aren’t coming in to see me, they’re going to get Iowans to see me. Because Iowans are my constituents; they’re the ones I have to listen to—I do listen to—and when you can work with people in Iowa it’s part of the process of representative government, and it’s just more effective lobbying.”
And he agrees with Carstensen on developing familiarity with frequent visits. “You know the people in Iowa,” he says. “There are a lot of people in Washington that are high-paid lobbyists, and you don’t even know their name—I mean, they tell you their name when they talk to you, but do you remember who they are? No; you can’t, and you don’t have to. If they’re doing their job, they’re going to have their Iowa people call on me on a regular basis at least once a year, but more often two or three times a year.”
Cattle interests do not speak with a single voice in Washington. The long-established NCBA has to vie for the attention of lawmakers and regulators with general farm organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union; there’s also the Montana-based R-CALF USA, and other cattle producer groups. R-CALF, which started life over a decade ago as the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, made the transition from a legal advocacy group to a membership-driven lobbying organization and now boasts 8,000 members; Grassley says, “I think it’s had some influence on the delegations in the Upper Plains states, but beyond that I don’t think it’s been a distraction from the overall goals of the older organizations.”
But R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard says they’ve had their successes. “What we were talking about and advocating was completely different than what Congress had been hearing for decades,” he says. “They perceived that whatever policies were beneficial to the meatpacking industry were likewise beneficial to farmers and ranchers.” Bullard says R-CALF’s intense research and persistence in the public arena have paid off in the form of considerable support from both Congress and the Administration—particularly, the current one, which he says has moved closer to R-CALF’s positions on issues like Country-of-Origin meat labeling, animal identification and competition in the marketplace.
Bullard says maintaining that membership base is crucial. “One of the first questions we hear from any member of Congress,” he says, “is, ‘Do you have members in my district?’ But he says the group’s lobbying procedures have evolved over time; although they’ve used the time-honored method of flying their leaders into Washington for talks, they’ve also taken advantage of what he says are “a lot of very active volunteers” within his organization, who make direct contact with their own members of Congress. In addition, they rely heavily on statistics—“a lot of charts and graphs,” Bullard says—to make their points, and have developed alliances with consumer advocacy groups. “Our industry depends on maintaining the highest level of consumer confidence,” he says, “so early in the development of our organization we reached out to talk to consumer groups to help them understand the specific challenges that the cattle producer has and why the changes that we are supporting were likewise beneficial to their members.”
Bullard poses their challenge as a David-vs-Goliath conflict. “Our membership consists of disaggregated producers—small businesses scattered all over the country,” he says, “whereas those who are opposing our interest are highly concentrated, well funded and have very close ties both within either administration and within Congress, regardless of what party is in charge. And our camp has been very careful to stick to the issues; we fight and advocate positions for change in Washington based on the issues themselves, not based on the politics.”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle reach out to the cattlemen. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), who became chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in 2009, has added long-time Arkansas Cattlemen’s executive director Tubby Smith to her committee staff; she says his addition gives ranchers “a great ear” in the committee. Lincoln says she’s always had a great relationship with cattlemen, “just making sure that we understand what their input costs are; how they’re affected by trade; what are the important ways that they can seek the kind of assistance that government can provide, whether it’s conservation programs or whether it’s feed assistance and other things that they need—those are critical things.”
And Kevin Carstensen offers this advice to other ranchers who are dipping into the Washington waters for the first time: “Go in with a very open mind and know your issues,” he says. “Get to the point as quickly as you can, because most of the time those guys will only give you about a 15 minute appointment….I go back to the point, go in with what your passion is about, speak it from the heart, don’t put a lot of fluff on it, and just come right out and tell them what you’re thinking. It seems like that gets you the farthest.”
And he adds this bit of logistics: “Make sure you schedule plenty of time between appointments, because you might be bopping from one building to another building, and taxi service isn’t always the greatest.”