Wenger stresses need for long-term action

Issue Date: December 6, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
Farm Bureau members and guests listen to CFBF President Paul Wenger as he delivers his annual address at the CFBF Annual Meeting in Garden Grove.
Photo/Dave Kranz
CFBF President Paul Wenger tells Farm Bureau members he has appreciated the opportunity to serve as a statewide officer for the past 20 years—the last eight as president.
Photo/Christine Souza

In his farewell speech as president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger made a pitch for unity with the help of a baseball Hall of Famer.

Wenger said it was Sandy Koufax who wrote, "We are bound together not only by a single interest but by a common goal."

"That is clearly what we do here at Farm Bureau," Wenger told Farm Bureau members and guests during the opening general session of the 99th CFBF Annual Meeting in Garden Grove.

Wenger, a third-generation farmer who grows almonds, walnuts and other crops outside Modesto, spoke of the days when he first took over the farm from his father. A neighbor of his invited him to come along to the coffee shop.

"I got there, and I saw a lot of 20-somethings like me," Wenger said. "I saw a lot of people sitting around the table complaining. They were complaining about the regulations. They were complaining about this. They were complaining about that. Did they accomplish anything? Absolutely not, but they sure did a lot of complaining."

That experience cured him of the coffee shop habit, he said, but did prompt him to do something by becoming active in Farm Bureau—in particular in response to expanding government regulation of agriculture.

"What I learned was, there was a lot of well-meaning people out there that have a job to do," Wenger said. "They're there because somebody told them, 'Here's a playbook. You've got to enforce this playbook on growers.' What I found out is that the people who made the rules don't know anything about agriculture."

So, he said, he told himself, "You know, we've got to get involved, and the time has got to be now. Farm Bureau's the way that I did that." (See President's Message.)

A former president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, Wenger was elected CFBF second vice president in 1997, before being elected first vice president in 2005 and president in 2009.

Wenger emphasized telling agriculture's story, and especially countering the negative impressions of farming and ranching that can circulate rapidly online.

Doing that, he said, means working with government officials, political candidates and elected leaders who may have little if any background in agriculture.

"We have to get out of our comfort zone and start dealing with some people we normally don't deal with," Wenger said, adding that he's proud of Farm Bureau's work in reaching out to urban legislators in particular.

"If we can look at a district where we never could count on a vote on anything from that elected leader, and we can get three or four votes on bills that are important to us, that's a 300 or 400 percent gain," he said.

But today, Wenger warned, agriculture faces a problem he described as "more insidious than the coffee shop"—and pulled out his smartphone.

"This is the coffee shop of today," he said.

The smartphone, he said, has allowed people both inside and outside of agriculture to criticize those who are on the front lines of ongoing policy debates.

Wenger emphasized that affecting public opinion and public policy must be a long-term, united endeavor.

"The way you sway it is long-term, consistent, working with individuals, taking them on tours on farms, supporting them politically, getting them out and educating them about agriculture," he said. "It's not fast, it's not easy, but those who work the hardest the longest and invest the most are probably going to be successful."

After eight years as president, Wenger has served his maximum term in office. Near the end of his speech, he thanked First Vice President Jamie Johansson, Second Vice President Tony Toso and the CFBF Board of Directors. He also recognized CFBF General Counsel Nancy McDonough, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Wenger then reflected on his own career as a CFBF officer.

"You know, it's been a great run for the past 20 years," Wenger said. "I appreciate the opportunity to work with all of you here. I do love this organization and everybody that's out here. Folks, we've got to put our differences aside."

He then told the gathering what former CFBF President Bob Vice told him when he first became a statewide officer.

"'Paul, your life is going to change,'" Wenger said, quoting Vice. "'From this day on, you're going to do things you've never done before. You're going to meet people you would never have met before. You have been given a golden key. Use it.'"

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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