ELMA, Wash. — Scott Dilley, labor policy analyst for the Washington State Dairy Federation, says seminary prepared him to be a farm lobbyist.
He compares explaining the Bible to explaining agriculture. These days, farmers need translators, he said.
“One of the great challenges for the agricultural community is that the number of farms and farmers has declined over the years, but we still need food production,” Dilley said. “It’s not as though the actual need has changed.”
Dilley, 43, has worked for the dairy federation since 2016. Before that, he had two stints with the Washington Farm Bureau, interrupted by two years at the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit think tank best known for opposing public-sector unions.
New and old
In January, the Legislature will convene, and he’ll face two challenges — one old, one new.
The continuing task will be to represent dairy farmers in Olympia. The untested part will be doing it from outside Olympia. The normal go, go, go of the legislative session will be replaced by Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, the online teleconference site.
“Covid-19 has caused a lot of people to rethink their jobs. Lobbying is no exception,” Dilley said.
In an interview at the dairy federation’s office in Elma, about 30 miles west of Olympia, Dilley talked about labor, the upcoming session and how a Mississippi native came to represent Washington dairy farmers.
Dilley grew up in Oxford, Miss., the son of two University of Mississippi teachers. His mom, Arlene, taught in the education department. His dad, Larry, taught Spanish and pastored an Assembly of God Church.
Dilley grew up rooting for Ole Miss, but decided to leave home for college. He studied government at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and then went on to the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo.
He married into a dairy family and after graduating with a master’s degree in theological studies moved with his former wife to Elma.
Looking for a job, he walked into the dairy federation’s office. “I think I said, ‘I don’t have anything. Go to Farm Bureau,’” said Elma farmer Jay Gordon, who has been the federation’s executive director or policy director for nearly 20 years.
Dilley didn’t immediately get on with Farm Bureau, but he got a job as a session aide with the Senate agriculture committee. Later that year, he went to work for Farm Bureau in Lacey, just north of Olympia.
Gordon said the dairy federation recruited Dilley for his labor expertise. “We needed someone to focus on that, and Scott brought that,” Gordon said.
Labor may be Washington agriculture’s biggest challenge.
In a case involving dairy workers, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Nov. 5 that agriculture’s exemption from paying overtime violated the state constitution.
For good measure, three judges wrote a concurring opinion stating that the argument against paying farmworkers overtime “depends on a caste system that is repugnant to our nation’s best self.”
In other decisions within the past few years, the court has ruled piece-rate farmworkers must be paid separately for rest breaks and for tasks such as attending meetings and moving equipment.
Also in the past few years, Washington legislators have introduced at two least bills presuming farmers were guilty if a worker complained about working conditions. The bills offered farmers the chance to prove their innocence.
Another bill proposed a head tax on foreign farmworkers, an assault on the H-2A program. Then there was the bill requiring farmers to report their slaves, a premise that offended all involved in agriculture.
Farm groups have presented, unsuccessfully, their arguments to the Supreme Court. They’ve been more successful in blocking legislation. “Leadership has tended to understand the needs of agriculture,” Dilley said.
Dilley said labor issues have been so divisive it’s been hard to agree on policies in the Legislature.
“People are just kind of locked and loaded,” he said.
In normal legislative sessions, lobbyists hurry from meeting to hearing to meeting, stalk legislators in hallways and trade intelligence with kindred lobbyists.
This year, in-person hearings and meetings will be replaced by video conferences. Dilley said he sees some advantages.
For one thing, the technical challenge of moving rapidly through an online hearing may limit the sheer volume of legislation.
Hearings may be more focused, Dilley said. “I think this coming session we’ll have to be organized and get key farmers to present testimony,” he said.
Also, observers in other parts of the state will be on equal footing. “People from all across the state can dial into these public meetings,” Dilley said.
Finally, Dilley said, he has noticed something since in-person meetings largely stopped last spring, replaced by video conferences, which sometimes includes glimpses of pets and kids.
“It kind of brings people together in a sense,” he said. “You get invited into their home.”