January 04, 2017It's a small world. Last year I wrote a column about restaurants that featured the McLean Family Restaurant here in McLean, Virginia. Audrey and Robert Markwart, 89 and 93 years young respectively, who still live on the 180 acre family farm near Capac, read it and called their son, Luther, to tell him about it. I remember the Markwart family from high school days.
Luther, it turns out, lives with his wife, Terri, and three kids, Christian, Lauren and Megan, in McLean and knew the restaurant well! He emailed me and we reconnected after all these years for lunch…at McLean Family, of course.
Luther, a 1973 graduate of Capac High and also Michigan State University alum, grew up on the sugarbeet farm that his family has owned since 1921.
In his youth, Luther, along with each of his siblings, helped with dairy cows and had an acre of sugarbeets that was his to take care of, which consisted mainly of hoeing weeds in the hot sun. It was a 4-H project for the kids but also put money in their college funds. There was no debt for Luther upon graduation from MSU.
He told me how hard the work was and said, "I wanted nothing to do with cows or agriculture when I grew older." So his degree is in Business Administration. He went to work as a salesman for Noxell Corporation, makers of shaving cream, skin cream and Cover Girl cosmetics, with a territory that stretched from Detroit to Sault Saint Marie.
"I got bored after a year and a half," he said. So he took the Dale Carnegie Course in Flint and it changed his life. With greater skills and confidence he went to work for who else? The Michigan - Ohio sugarbeet growers, of course! Only now he didn't have to grow the beets himself. He worked in government and public relations and helped with the 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs.
In 1982, he became the Executive Vice President of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association in Washington D.C., a position he still holds. The ASGA represents all 10,000 family farm sugarbeet growers in 11 states, including Michigan, where growers produce more that 4 million tons of the commodity annually.
Their website says: "The purpose of the organization is to unite sugarbeet growers in the United States and promote the common interest of state and regional beet grower associations, which include legislative and international representation and public relations."
Associations, by the way, are some of the largest employers in the nation's capital. Every group or industry of any size probably has an association representing them.
Luther explained to me that, "Political people and policy makers don't know your business but will make laws and regulations that will impact every aspect of your business. We explain to these people what the impact or consequence of their action will be.
"Most people," he says, "think lobbyists are here to pressure Congress to spend money that doesn't need to be spent. Not true. Lobbyists are more educators than anything else. We also serve as connectors to other people or groups who may have an impact on business. Sort of like the old telephone operator, we can connect one group to another to get answers to questions. It can get very complicated."
This same process happens at the state and local levels of government as well.
The people at ASGA monitor any proposed bill in Congress that might affect the growers. Bills can get very complicated with page after page of details. This may include farm policy, trade (both here and abroad), appropriations, biotech, health policy and anything else that could be of interest to sugarbeet growers. They also work with other commodities as well because some issues effect all farmers across the nation.
Needless to say, Luther and his team work with both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats alike. For example, Michigan Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow is the ranking member (minority) on the Senate Agriculture Committee and has a lot of sway on the formulation of legislation. The 20-member committee is chaired by Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
The House Committee is chaired by Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX). Rep. John Moolenaar, Michigan Republican, is on the committee.
The 115th Congress convened yesterday here in Washington and ASGA folks will spend many, many hours with members of Congress and their staff people educating them on how each proposal will impact the growers in their state and around the world.
"We are not allowed to give any gifts of any value, including lunches," says Markwart. "We give them a plastic pen that has a miniature white sugarbeet floating in it, because most people confuse them with red beets." He gave me one. It's a cute pen but it would not be enough to swing my vote one way or the other.
"Sugarbeet prices today are about the same as they were during the Jimmy Carter Administration so our work is even more important. I love every minute of it, but must admit, that there can be too many 'minutes' to love. I've just hired a young man who is eager and knowledgeable to help us." That will bring the total staff to four.
It was great to see Luther again and really interesting that he shared what it's really like to be one of those "nameless" lobbyists.
So the next time you hear the word "lobbyist," remember what their role really is: to educate, not always pressure policy makers. Thanks, Luther, Robert, Audrey and all of the sugarbeet growers, for all you do to make this world sweeter.
Email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.