OLYMPIA — Washington farmers rallied Monday on the Capitol steps as the Legislature convened for a 60-day session.

The rally was small, with about 30 people attending. Snow and the threat of snow discouraged people from northwest and Eastern Washington from coming, said rally organizer, Rosella Mosby, president of the King-Pierce Farm Bureau.

"The weather impacted our turnout big time," she said.

Farmers who were there said that along with rising production costs and stagnating incomes, their problems include the fact that few people farm.

"I don't feel people understand where their food comes from," said Sam Spooner, a fifth-generation farmer in Puyallup.

The rally was partly a response to last year's legislative session. Farmers were opposed to a proposal to tax them for hiring foreign seasonal workers and were offended by a bill that linked their employment practices to slavery.

Veteran farm lobbyists said the slavery bill was the worst they'd seen in three-plus decades of watching or working in state government. A longtime legislator said he had never heard such anti-farm rhetoric in his 25 years as a lawmaker.

"After last year's session, kind of the worst session in 35 years for agriculture, the King-Pierce Farm Bureau felt it was important to send a message — that agriculture is important. We're watching you," Mosby said.

Lawmakers last year did not enact a head-tax on H-2A foreign guestworkers, nor did it pass the bill that would have required farmers to publicize workplace violations, including cases of forced servitude.

Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said he again expects the organization to be on the defensive.

"Our disconnect seems to be increasing, rather than closing," he said.

Although a tiny percentage of the population farms, those in agriculture have natural allies in other business groups and other rural landowners, Stuhlmiller. "As less and less of the population farms and fewer and fewer people know what it takes to grow food, we look for anybody who has a connection," he said. 

Spooner said his family's farm dates back to 1882 and it's one of only three left in the Puyallup area. Support businesses are fewer, too. He said he has to get irrigation equipment from Lynden, 135 miles north of Puyallup.

"I want people to be educated about agriculture," he said as his sister, Becky Heslep, held a sign that said, "Ask Me About My Farm." 

There were no speeches at the farm rally. One legislator dropped by, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who mixed with farmers holding signs. Three tractors circled the Capitol.

Auburn vegetable farmer Burr Mosby, husband of Rosella Mosby, said farmers would be wise to educate consumers and watch the Legislature. "We're an easy target because we don't say anything," he said. "We all have to get more savvy on it."

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