Who said that initiating a new generation of farmer-lobbyists would be easy? Richard Oswald and his grandson take a rattling detour to make the National Farmers Union convention.
Out here in rural America we tell the joke about the city slicker who asks the country bumpkin how far it is to some far flung Timbuktu. After a moment the country boy answers, adding “But you can’t get there from here.”
Walking through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago last Sunday with my grandson Hayden, I thought about that. We had just arrived in stormy Chicago to make a connecting flight to Washington, DC, when we learned that the aircraft we’d been scheduled to board for the second leg of our trip had been diverted to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
At first I thought they were kidding.
America is besieged these days by corporate CEOs who claim to work financial miracles everyday, but who definitely don’t walk on water. The real miracles come from employees who can land an airplane on it, folks like Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who saved all his passengers’ lives by gliding an Airbus onto the Hudson River. Sullenberger recently told Congress that the greatest number of airline casualties today are employees (and customers), the victims of revolving-door managers who use corporations as ATM’s.
Airline management certainly made a withdrawal from us when we swooped into Chicago: the agent behind the counter told us that our flight had been canceled, our tickets were non-refundable, we would have to wait in Chicago for at least 30 hours for another flight, and we’d have to pay the cost of our meals and lodging while we waited. They wouldn’t even give us back our luggage. Since returning home I’ve spoken to people who said it took them two or three days to get out of Chicago’s O’Hare.
I guess we were lucky.
We were expecting to be in Washington by 4:00 that afternoon, in time to attend the evening banquet at the National Farmers Union Convention. I was elected a Missouri delegate to the convention earlier in the year at the Missouri Farmers Union annual meeting in Ste Genevieve. This year not only would national delegates be re-working policy, they also planned to select a new president. I didn’t want to miss that.
For the next five hours Hayden and I walked from ticket line to ticket line looking for some way to get to Washington on time. By 5:00 we were worn out and hungry. That’s when my daughter Mandy, who had been searching the Internet from home for available flights, suggested we consider the train. “Take Amtrak.” she said, “It’s really not that bad”.
Mandy booked our tickets via her home computer. Out on the street in front of terminal 3, I hailed a cab. In accented English the driver suggested we take the shuttle. “No,” I said. “We’re going to Union Station.” A quick smile tugged the corners of his mouth. “Get in,” he said. (When I learned how much the fare would be, I understood that smile.)
We got to Union Station in Chicago with an hour to spare, and the meter said $35. When I handed the cabbie two twenties, he gave me back $12. Puzzled, I tried to give some back so that he’d have the full fare plus a tip. Once more he gave me back my money saying “No-no, we make good time, it ok.”
This was shaping up to be an entire trip of “firsts.”
We picked up our tickets and went looking for food at the concessions in the station. While there we talked to a couple and their young son who had come to the city for a weekend. She had lost her purse, but they were still smiling in spite of their bad luck. And we were visited by two panhandlers. One, a blonde girl about Hayden’s age, got $3 from me. I hadn’t a clue if she was on the level or not. Either way I figured she was someone’s granddaughter, and maybe my the dollars would get her off the street before dark. (We Grandpas have to stick together.)
It was definitely dark by the time the train pulled out of the station, at 7:05. Mandy had booked us into a Superliner Roomette that offered electrical plug-ins (we needed those for cell phones), 2 seats that also made into a bed along with an overhead bunk, free meals, coffee, bottled water and juice for the duration of the trip.
The bad news was that the 1:30 pm Monday arrival time was too late for me to make my noon deadline with the credentials committee. All of Missouri’s votes would now have to be cast by the other delegate, Jill Lucht of Columbia, and we’d missed the Sunday evening banquet where Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack had been scheduled to speak.
Service on Amtrak was great. Our car attendant was courteous and kind as was the staff of the dining car where we took our three complimentary meals. The food was good, even the coffee. But when the rail cars started to pitch and roll, I knew why President Obama wants to spend part of the stimulus money on railroad tracks. As I told one friend via my Blackberry, parts of the ride were like flying over the mountains in a miniature boudoir during a thunderstorm while someone bounced on the bed.
We arrived in DC at Union Station right on time. It was a short walk from the train platform down to the Metro on another level, where we caught a ride to Crystal City in Arlington. That was the site of our convention hotel. Even though Amtrak trains have shower facilities, we arrived wrinkled and in need of a change of clothes because the airline still had our luggage.
My suitcase was waiting with the concierge where my daughter (the consumer advocate) had badgered the airline into delivering it, but they lost Hayden’s case. Another day would pass before it arrived at the hotel. It could have been worse, because true to his training as an Eagle Scout, Hayden had been prepared and kept a change of clothes in his carry-on bag, “just in case”, along with his toiletries.
Trust a 17 year old to remember deodorant.
That evening Hayden took a moonlight youth bus tour of the Capitol arranged by the Farmers Union, and I attended a PAC reception followed by a visit with some friends from Organization for Competitive Markets. OCM held a board meeting in DC to coincide with the NFU annual meeting.
On Tuesday the NFU policy session got under way. Even though I wasn’t officially recognized as a delegate and couldn’t speak to the issues from the floor, I was allowed to be seated next to Jill so that she and I could discuss her votes.
At noon the delegates chose the new president. (I had missed the the two candidates’ speeches, delivered at Sunday’s banquet.) Roger Johnson of North Dakota was elected President. After the noon break we wrapped up adoption of the new policy.
NFU can be a rowdy bunch. The thing I like best about being a member is the irreverent way some of our group treat the status quo. It’s hard telling what issues will arise when delegates take the floor. One bit of new policy we adopted was to use the promotion money ordinarily paid to producer organizations from our grain and livestock sales, to feed the poor instead. New policy now states that producers should have the choice of donating to food banks. When that policy was voted up, Tom Giesel, a delegate from Kansas, stuck his arm in the air and shouted “YEAH!” (I love these guys.)
I’ve made several trips to Washington over the last few years. Hayden expressed my entire family’s sentiments that it wasn’t really quite clear what it is I do there. The way I explained it to him, it’s sort of like working for a big corporation, only the little guys are the boss. Because we live in a democratic society, we get to hire our policy makers with our votes, pretty much the same way I was chosen to be a national delegate from Missouri Farmers Union.
Going to the home offices located on Constitution and Independence Avenue is a little like the boss stopping by for a visit to the assembly line. With the meeting concluded, NFU members scattered out to visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Hayden came along to learn first hand what it is we do in DC.
Accompanying our group was Julie Harker, a radio reporter for the Brownfield Network, heard across large portions of Missouri. When we entered our first meeting, she identified herself to our host, an aide to a Missouri Congressman. “You’re not going to record this are you?” he asked. Julie told him she was just there to get a feel for what we were doing.
The young aide was well aware of the value of sound-bite journalism. These days on the radio and TV, commentators bad-mouth those who bought houses they couldn’t afford even though it was American big business that trashed the economy and paid billions for sub-prime loans based solely on the American dream and not much else.
No doubt there were some who shouldn’t have bought new homes, but mostly, subprime victims are just people who took a bath when the dream-bubble burst. Their greatest sin was confidence in our nation and its leaders, a belief that their government watched over them. The guys who made real money from funny money transactions and swelled the national debt three-fold are still walking free, wealthier than ever.
I didn’t see any lazy over-spenders on our trip; all I saw were people like the waiter from Baltimore in the Amtrak dining car who proudly showed us a picture of his month-old son. Or the cab driver who said he was a naturalized citizen with relatives back home in Somalia. I saw congressional aides whose faces have, over the years, become older and more familiar to me, who come to work every day more out of dedication to their Senator or Representative boss, and a desire for the experience of working in Washington DC, than for the money that job yields.
But what I saw most of were Americans. Down to earth, realistic idealists who still believe that life in a Democratic republic brings rights, and that those rights are worth defending. So when Congress talks about forcing all farms to have ID numbers, and all livestock on the farms to be identified individually the same way regardless of cost to small farms — even though peanut butter most foul and other processed or imported contaminated products can be sold here, allowing thousands to be sickened for years before any harm’s detected — we get a little upset.
We’re dissatisfied when speculation in commodities becomes huge and unregulated to the point that small farms, livestock feeders, and dairies can no longer compete for available supplies of feed. And when big meat packers or big seed companies use their power and wealth to control the marketplace, then we farmers try to convince Congress that we need to rebuild markets, make them more transparent by fighting monopolies and corporate control, and re-establish fair competition.
Some people say we can never succeed. They say that our government is too intertwined with big corporate interests and that we’ve lost the ability to separate the two. They look at our goal and conclude that we just can’t get there from here.
There will be delays and unexpected turns in the road for me and my friends in Farmers Union, but it’s just a matter of getting from point A to point B. And we will get there.