OLYMPIA—Lobbyist Ben Buchholz, having grown up on a family farm, continuing to work summers on that small farm and seeing how hard it is to make a living, has a well-rounded perspective on lawmaking and its consequences.
There he was recently, in a dark suit, white shirt and light blue tie, dressed like the other lobbyists who inhabit the state Capitol, testifying against making gasoline and diesel less “carbon intensive.” Farmers’ fuel bills will rise, Buchholz told the senators, adding that he and his father, Robert, already pull down less than the minimum wage as farmers.
Fuel, labor and other expenses keep rising, but crop prices don’t, he said. “Something has to bend,” he said. “Usually it’s us.”
Olympia has a cadre of farm lobbyists, and Buchholz, 36, has been one of them for more than a decade.
In an interview, he compared farming to lobbying. “The hours are similar, very long,” he said. “The day begins before sunrise and ends long past dinnertime. The difference is the uniform.”
Buchholz grew up in Prosser in Eastern Washington. His family owns a 50-acre alfalfa farm in Prosser and a 50-acre tree fruit farm in Wapato. After high school, Buchholz went to the University of Washington. In his junior year, he found his career in a political science course on “influencing government.”
Soon after college, he spent seven months witnessing grass-roots politics by shepherding Washington’s unassuming secretary of state Sam Reed to public events. Then, Buchholz became a lobbyist.
He currently lobbies on behalf of such organizations as the Northwest Grain Growers, Far West Agribusiness Association, the Palouse River & Coulee City Rail System and Food Northwest, formerly the Northwest Food Processors Association.
He’s also the part-time executive director of the Northwest Agricultural Cooperative Council, an organization that represents cooperatives in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Buchholz, who lives in Seattle, said he pictures himself retiring to the family farm, but he plans to make his career west of the Cascades, where the policies that affect farming are primarily made.
“I think this is where I can make the biggest impact for the family farmer,” he said. “It’s rare to find someone anymore in Olympia who comes off the family farm.”
The good news, he said, is that farmers have a good image, surveys show that. “They trust that farmers are doing the best they can every day,” Buchholz said.
The hard part, he said, is that knowledge about farming can be thin, particularly among Western Washington legislators from urban districts.
“I think there’s an understanding that the economic driver in Eastern Washington is agriculture, but beyond that, I don’t think there’s a lot of understanding about the day-to-day business of agriculture,” Buchholz said.
He said he was on a boat trip with about 50 legislators last summer that started in Kennewick. They went up the Columbia and Snake rivers to see one of the dams that environmentalists want to breach to increase wild salmon runs, but that grain farmers rely on to make the rivers navigable for barges.
Many of the legislators, Buchholz said, had not been to the Tri-Cities. “You do have to do some high-level education when you’re talking about agricultural issues,” he said.
“Part of the job is interacting with so many folks,” he said. “You have to talk to everybody, and you have to be open to other people’s points of views.”
As a farm lobbyist, “you’re mostly playing defense,” he said, on-guard for proposals that will raise production costs or increase regulations.
For this short, 60-day session, legislators have introduced more than 1,400 bills. Dozens of the bills affect agriculture.
“The biggest part of our job is to make sure we don’t miss anything,” Buchholz said.
The session is scheduled to end March 12, but the work won’t end then. Between sessions, there are state agencies to lobby and policies to head off.
“Part of our job is dealing with potential bills even before they become a draft,” Buchholz said.