A farm background, and the emphasis it places on people working together, brings the type of experience that’s helpful to getting things done in Congress, said Rep. David Valadao, R-CA, in the latest Dairy Defined podcast.
“Every time a salesman shows up on your property, they might be trying to sell you a product you might not like that day, but the following day, they're going to have stuff you might like. And so to just cut off communication with someone because you disagree with them one day, doesn't mean you cut off communication forever,” said Valadao, the only dairy farmer serving in Congress. “I do believe in Congress. For you to legislate good policy, you have to have everyone at the table and be able to have a conversation about the topic. It forces you, one, to understand the issue, but two, to hear it from both sides and try to represent our areas as best we possibly can.”
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Today's guest is unique in Congress and in dairy because he's part of both. Representative David Valadao, representing California's 21st congressional district, has spent his life in agriculture on a family farm that now consists of two dairies and more than 1000 acres of farmland in Kings and western Tulare County. He's had leadership roles within the California Milk Advisory Board and the Western States Dairy Trade Association, and served as Regional Leadership Council Chairman for Land O'Lakes. He was first elected to Congress in 2012 and returned to Congress this year. In the house, he's been the leader in agriculture and water policy tailored to the concerns of California Central Valley. He's also been active on military issues.
Welcome, Congressman Valadao.
Rep. David Valadao: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: I want to talk a little bit about your time in Congress and the role that you carved out for yourselves here, both as a member of Congress and as a dairy farmer. One of your distinct qualities in your congressional career seems to be an orientation toward bipartisanship.
Rep. David Valadao: So yes, that for me has always been a priority, working across the aisle. I mean, my background as a farmer, as a business person, the understanding that you have to work with people. There's times that you disagree. Every time a salesman shows up on your property, they might be trying to sell you a product you might not like that day, but the following day, they're going to have stuff you might like. And so to just cut off communication with someone because you disagree with them one day, doesn't mean you cut off communication forever. I do believe in Congress. For you to legislate good policy, you have to have everyone at the table and be able to have a conversation about the topic. It forces you, one, to understand the issue, but two, to hear it from both sides and try to represent our areas as best we possibly can. I represent the largest dairy district in the nation, but making sure that we have the input from people who represent different types of areas, will also help you understand the issue to help you craft better legislation.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: What are some of the biggest immediate concerns to farmers in your district?
Rep. David Valadao: So there's a few different ones. For dairy farmers, specifically, input costs are huge. Feed prices have gone through the roof, truck loads of feed that are coming in. Every time I talk to a farmer, they talk about the price of every truckload. So that's been a huge concern for them. As far as water, water is one that also is a massive issue for us. And then the one that I've been getting the most calls from, which I've never gotten this many phone calls on, is the labor shortage. The farmers who are doing the job of two to three to four people because they're just not able to find labor. So we've got three real big problems in the state of California. And I assume the majority of this country is dealing with the same type of issues.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You played an important role in passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in March. What do you see as the outlook for enacting ag labor legislation this year?
Rep. David Valadao: So we're already hearing from senators in the Senate who are actually starting to have those conversations. Right when we passed legislation, obviously what was going on in the border was playing a major role in the political climate here in Washington, DC. But I think there's enough farmers speaking up and being very clear that they are in desperate need, that the pressure start to build and senators are starting to have those conversations. I hope to see some progress, and I know that they don't love the [inaudible 00:03:17] legislation. There's obviously components that we could always point to and say, well, there's a problem here, but we need to focus on solving a problem, finding the issues they have with it, but at the end of the day, solving the problems. So hopefully they continue with the dialogue I hear they're starting.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: One issue that hasn't been on the front burner yet this year, but is becoming more prominent, is government funding. You're on the Appropriations Committee. What's your perspective on funding concerns for this year? And what are your priorities for the annual agriculture spending bill?
Rep. David Valadao: Honestly, the concern is that we're $28 trillion in debt. And obviously the amount of debt for the country is of huge concern. These past few years, especially during the pandemic, spending has gone up quite a bit, but through the approach process, we obviously have a lot of responsibilities to make sure that certain programs are funded because they play a vital role in many people's lives, not just agriculture. But my committees that I serve on, my subcommittee is the USDA FDA. So US Department, Food and Ag and Food and Drug Administration is one subcommittee, and the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, I mean two vital committees for our country, making sure that the resources are there for our farmers, for keeping our country safe. But we also have other important priorities for the country that we have to focus on. So hopefully we get moving quickly on appropriations.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You recently helped lead a bipartisan group of house members and urging the US trade representative to take additional enforcement action, holding Canada accountable to their dairy commitments under the USMCA. Looks like US [inaudible 00:04:54] moving forward. What do you hope happens?
Rep. David Valadao: Well, I hope that we hold countries responsible and for their commitments, making sure. And that's one of the things that we struggle with in agriculture in general, but dairy specifically. We need to have fair trade deals that treat us in a way that we could actually be profitable on a national stage. It is something that we have to fall through. And for years, the dairy industry's struggle across the world with trade policies and actually having the avenue to be able to push back and actually defend ourselves, is something I'm excited about. And I'm hopeful that in this one, we can level the playing field and put dairy on a fair platform with everyone else.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now you talked a little bit about some of the challenges that dairy faces. One of the biggest challenges agriculture faces in Washington sometimes is simply being understood. It's an increasingly urban society. You're going to have another round of redistricting, which will mean fewer rural seats. How do you use your experience as a dairy farmer to inform your colleagues on important issues for dairy and ag, given that so few have experience with agriculture and none have the same experience level you have with dairy?
Rep. David Valadao: So I try not to be the annoying guy that brings up my past all the time, but I do like to bring in a lot of different stories. And sometimes it's things as simple as pictures and videos of things that I've done on the dairy. One that I've always enjoyed bringing up and people get a kick out of, especially when you're talking Energy Policy, for example, is digesters. And my family's farm just got our digester up and going and working. And so I love showing people the picture of my son and I on top of the digester and other videos of me actually walking across the top. And it's always amazing because then people start to ask more questions about what we do, how we do it. Sometimes it's pictures of us chopping silage or different things, and people do get an interest in it because they actually get to see it. And I've actually had members of Congress come out to the farm and take tours, and even members of committee staff, and my own personal office staff, have all been out to the farm. Some have actually milked cows, even.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So Congressman, you of course have a long time relationship with the dairy community through your own leadership positions. I know you recently spoke with the NMPF Young Cooperators group. People who are going down some similar paths to where you were just a few years ago. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about what you told them about how being a dairy farmer has shaped your time as Congressman.
Rep. David Valadao: So, yes, I started through a lot of the same programs. I actually had a chance to be here in Washington, DC, a number of years ago with the Young Cooperators. And that experience was great because it taught me a lot about the process here in Washington. And it got me involved in politics, got me involved in representing my area. But farmers have a responsibility to be a voice in their communities, and you can be a voice at all different fronts. Obviously I'm here in Washington, DC. I spent some time in the state legislature, but you've got government at so many different levels that need to have our perspective representative. I've represented and given us the opportunity to have our voices and continue to have the conversation about the importance of agriculture, the importance of our communities, the importance of the role we play in keeping our communities fed and safe.
So I talked a little bit about how my background in agriculture, just like theirs, can have a positive impact because we get involved in so many different types of things on our farms, that in a lot of ways relate to so many different segments of society. And it's actually a great foundation, I think, for people to get involved. I think it's a great background. And I really encourage these young kids or young farmers to get involved in their communities and in politics in general.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything else our listeners should know about your work in Congress, the mood in Washington these days, or the struggle of being a farm kid inside the Beltway before we go?
Rep. David Valadao: So, yeah. I mean, my background, my farming background, my background on dairy has been helpful. With Congress, we have a pretty amazing system where we have people with all different backgrounds. And so obviously I'm not a doctor, I didn't serve in the military, I wasn't a school teacher, I'm not a lawyer. I'm a farmer, and we all have our different experiences. And when we have tough issues on the house floor, having access to these other members who have these different backgrounds and expertise is helpful. And asking questions and having those conversations comes back as a benefit, because these folks come back and ask me questions about things that I'm dealing with, or I've dealt with, or of my own personal background. And so it is really nice to be in that type of position.
But I mean, obviously in the dairy industry, we do a little of everything. We do nutrition, we do health, we do construction, we do manufacturing, we do processing, we farm. All those different things that you do on a farm, you're kind of a jack of all trades, master of none. Gives you a little bit of taste of so many different topics across the spectrum of things that we deal with here in Congress. But the environment here in Congress has changed over these past two years. And I was out of Congress for a couple years and the situation's got more partisan, has got more divided, and it's frustrating. So looking for those opportunities, continue to work across building relationships with other members of Congress, even on my own side of the aisle, and getting them to understand all our districts are different. All of our backgrounds are different, but we live in one great country with a wonderful system that we have to defend and continue to bill.
And Congress is an opportunity for us to do that. But folks at home who are on their farm, they have to deal with government at all different levels, making sure that they're involved in their school boards, their supervisors, their city councils, their state legislatures, are all things of importance. And if farmers don't step up and get involved in politics in general at all different levels, we're in trouble because the population is just too far away from the farm. And we've got to remind them that we produce the food that they eat on a daily basis. And without us, there's no survival.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We've been speaking with Congressman David Valadao. Congressman, thank you so much for your time.
Rep. David Valadao: Any time, thanks for having me.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that's it for today's Dairy Defined podcast. For more of this podcast, we are on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.