CHEHALIS, Wash. — State Sen. Rebecca Saldana, who has introduced bills reviled by farm groups, toured Lewis County farms July 17 and asked a dairyman what policymakers could do for him.
Ross McMahan didn’t hesitate. “I don’t feel as policymakers you can do anything. The marketplace is bigger than all of us,” he said.
As Saldana and others on the tour left his milking barn, McMahan said he hoped they took away “some understanding of the position we’re in.”
“We have to be able to succeed on our own and not by them helping us,” he said.
Later, Saldana talked about her reaction to McMahan’s answer. “I’m like, ‘That’s an honest thing,’” she said. But as for government not intervening as a rule, Saldana said, “I’m definitely not someone willing for that to be the truth.”
Saldana, a Seattle Democrat, was one of five state lawmakers who accepted an invitation from the Lewis County Farm Bureau to spend several hours on a bus and visit four farms.
It’s not unusual for state lawmakers to go on Farm Bureau-organized tours. Saldana came with an unusual amount of baggage, however.
In 2018, she proposed that farms give a four-day notice before spraying as a way to protect the public from pesticides. This year, she proposed requiring farms to inform retailers of employment violations they were guilty of, including slavery.
In both cases, veteran farm lobbyists said they couldn’t remember legislation so demeaning to agriculture.
“I’ve been told by many people they are the worst bills in 33 years,” Saldana said, reaching the limit of lobbyists’ memories.
The slavery bill marked a year of unusual tension between agricultural interests and the Democratic-controlled Senate. In the heat of the session, the Farm Bureau accused Saldana of relentlessly attacking farmers.
Mindful of the tension, the organizer of the Lewis County tour, Maureen Harkcom, said she sent invitations to every state lawmaker in Western Washington. She hoped urban legislators would visit the rural and solidly Republican southwest Washington county.
Saldana was the first to accept, Harkcom said.
“I’m thinking, ‘Wow, she really wants to come down,’” Harkcom said. “I was wondering what her motive was. ... My ulterior motive was to open people’s eyes.”
Saldana, a former farmworker union organizer and daughter of a farmworker, said she has visited Eastern Washington farms, but this was her first organized tour of Western Washington farms.
“In Olympia, it’s the large farms east of the mountains and their issues that kind of dominate policy concerns, so it’s good to hear about agriculture here,” she said.
Besides the dairy, the tour group — which also included about two dozen government and nonprofit representatives — went to a lavender farm, an apiary and a Christmas tree farm.
Every place is run by multiple generations. A theme throughout was that government regulations, from all levels, generally hinder them.
“I really hope people came away with positive feelings about agriculture and positive feelings about people in agriculture,” Harkcom said. “Leave us alone and we can do good things.”
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, also went on the tour. She said she knows farmers worry about what lawmakers will do.
In that way, she said, they’re like her constituents, who are concerned about maintaining ferries and cleaning up Puget Sound — two expensive propositions that aren’t a priority for some lawmakers.
“I always wish people in the Legislature understood things better from my perspective,” she said.
Reviled initially, Saldana’s pesticide bill was amended and passed and has led to a pesticide-safety panel supported by farm groups.
The panel’s first job will be to agree on how often pesticides drift off target. “We don’t have baseline data, so it’s hard to say we’re doing better or worse,” Saldana said.
As for the slavery bill, it was pushed by the United Farm Workers and Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO but didn’t pass. Saldana said she remains concerned about the treatment of farmworkers, particularly allegations of sexual harassment.
“You’ll see me out on people’s farms and definitely welcoming being involved in talking to people,” she said.
Seattle’s football and baseball stadiums are in Saldana’s district, and so are people who care about how their food is grown, she said. “I would definitely love to invite farmers to my district.”