The Rural Coalition 2012 Winter Forum and Annual Gala

“Coming home for the holidays” is the best way for me to describe the 2012 Rural Coalition Winter Forum and Annual Gala! For me, the Rural Coalition is more than a “job”, it has become my family and the Winter Forum feels like a good ol’ family reunion! My flight took off at 5:45 AM but I was sitting at the gate by 4:45 AM just giddy with the anticipation of familiar faces and big warm hugs with members from around the country! I was not disappointed.

The Rural Coalition Winter Forum has become a space of sharing between Rural Coalition member organizations and the US Department of Agriculture. A safe space for members to share concerns, voice disagreements and join in celebrating accomplishments. The Rural Coalition staff works diligently to ensure the meeting is a full two-day experience where everyone has a voice and everyone has their opportunity to be heard. After having worked in more mainstream organizations and agencies it was concerning when planning for my first Winter Forum that there were no PowerPoint presentations or a strict agenda to follow but after seeing the honesty and powerful testimonies shared between our member organizations and the USDA, I soon realized much more is said without technology or boundaries.

How often does one see Tirso Moreno, the Director of the Farmworker Association of Florida and Frank Gasperini, Exec VP, National Council of Agriculture Employers sit together on a panel exploring the critical issues of labor in agriculture and the food chain in the context of migration and immigration. An inspiring moment from the forum was listening to these two men discuss their various views while looking ahead to the coming national debate around immigration reform. Mr. Gasperini and the growers of NCAE worry they will not get the farm workers they need each season because of the current restrictive immigration and labor regulations. Business planning requires predictability and the NCAE believes domestic agriculture needs new, workable farm labor alternatives to provide access to a legal workforce. Tirso Moreno said it best, “Immigration reform cannot simply be a pathway to a more stable workforce. Immigration reform must go all the way as a path to equality as citizens.” Mr. Moreno explained that only through citizenship would farmworkers gain the right to improved working conditions, fair wages, and access to benefits. Mr. Gasperini’s concern was the ability of the US to feed the population of the world without access to a stable migrant or immigrant workforce. This concern had other Rural Coalition members questioning why it was the responsibility of US farmers to feed the world population. This again led to Mr. Moreno giving some of the most insightful words of the entire forum. “We must work together as farmer and farmworker. Sometimes it seems we stand apart and against each other but we are all getting squeezed from the corporations on top. We need to work together and stand together.” And that is what the Rural Coalition does best. Tough diverse in our communities and our members we stand together. We stand for equitable and fair farm and food policy and will continue to work on the concerns our members shared during the Winter Forum.

Other highlights of the forum included the Rural Coalition youth inspiring the audience with their perseverance through stories of the trials they face as beginning farmers. The continue to experience inadequate access to capital, land, financing, educational opportunities and yet they keep tilling up the soil every year and planting one more seed.

Alfonzo Abeyta, a Colorado rancher, spoke of his life’s work fighting for justice for all Hispanics who encountered discrimination within the offices of USDA. Mr. Abeyta was able to share his story with the Rural Coalition members and USDA when discussing the current disparities and inadequacies within the current Hispanic and Women Farmer and Rancher Claims Resolution Process. After decades of discrimination and then fighting for justice Mr. Abeyta and Rural Coalition members believe the current claims process continues to fall short in providing fairness and true financial resolution.

And finally we celebrated Rural Coalition’s Executive Director Lorette Picciano and her 20 years of dedicated and inspiring service! Members, staff, and family were able to surprise her with a touching dedication, pictures, mementos, gifts, and wonderful speeches from her son and daughter at the Gala.

The Winter Forum and Gala continue to be the highlight of the year. A moment for us to reflect on the hard work, share in our highs and lows, and work together in moving forward for more just and equitable food and farm policy.