Western Innovator: Speaking up for agriculture

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CAPITAL PRESS – DON JENKINS – AUBURN, Wash. — Driving 30 miles north or south from the Mosby farm can take a couple of hours if the traffic gets jammed.

It’s here, between Tacoma and Seattle in King County and slightly off Interstate 5, that Rosella and Burr Mosby grow vegetables on 350 acres.

In the 1970s, some people thought preserving farming in the state’s most populous county was an excellent idea. It took a few tries, but they persuaded voters in 1979 to devote $50 million to buying development rights from farmers.

By the time the money was gone in the mid-1980s, the county had locked up roughly 13,000 acres. In some cases, it didn’t work out as planned. The rules allowed one house per 35 acres, so the land was carved into rural estates.

The program, however, did preserve for agriculture the land that the Mosbys farm. It was a dairy, and the previous owners sold the development rights. For King County, it’s a large operation. Rosella Mosby said she meets people surprised to find professional farmers still around.

“They think it’s a lifestyle. Guess what? It’s a business,” she said.

To explain commercial agriculture to urban Western Washington, Rosella Mosby, president of the King-Pierce Farm Bureau, has taken on a role: face of agriculture.

The American Farm Bureau recently honored her as was one of its three “GO Teamers” for 2018. GO standards for “grassroots outreach.”

She speaks to groups and answers questions. She said she’s been asked if white eggs are bleached and heard a complaint that hens feel pain laying eggs.

“People don’t have a connection to agriculture. At a salad bar, they don’t know how the food got there and where it came from, that it doesn’t just magically appear,” she said.

“I find it very important to be respectful of everybody because everybody thinks they’re educated,” she said. “They just need to be enlightened.”

Rosella Mosby said that she suspects some urban politicians dismiss farming as an outdated industry. They don’t appreciate the contribution agriculture makes to the environmental causes they care about, she said.

She testified this year in Olympia in front of a House committee on a bill that would have imposed a head tax on foreign guest farmworkers. She introduced her remarks by saying: “Agriculture is over-regulated and underrepresented.”

She ended by saying: “Policymakers who are anti-agriculture are anti-economy.”

In between, she said their farm wasn’t a “charity or nonprofit,” but does have a mutually beneficial relationship with its workers.

She explained that a tax on hiring foreign labor would further shrink the overall labor pool, so her farm would be hurt, even though it can’t afford house — and thus hire — foreign workers.

She also weaved in the story about Burr’s start in farming. He was 17 in 1977 delivering acorn squash in a pickup to Safeway. “Today, that load would require a refrigerated truck,” she said, adding that the federal food-safety program costs their farm “more than your child’s first-year of college at a private school.”

Later in the session, she told the Senate budget committee they had to plow under 20 acres of zucchini because they didn’t have enough pickers. She said it was “like you shredding a couple of your paychecks.”

She also retold the story about her husband’s start in farming. “Forty-three years later, he’s still the hardest-working guy I know,” she said, emotionally.

She finished and apologized for going over the time limit for testimony.

“No, that’s OK. You were on a roll,” the committee chairwoman, Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said. “It was important information for us all.”

The important information was a straight-forward account of how a shortage of farmworkers affects the Mosby farm. Rosella said that she’s learned as an advocate for agriculture that “The story is your story.”

The Mosbys are first-generation farmers. Rosella had a business, decorating interiors with plaster, before marrying Burr. The produce they grow — cucumbers, rhubarb, squash, beets, leeks — is sold to grocery chains.

The farm has 25 year-round employees and would like to have 100 workers for six months. The farm typically comes up about 15% short of that, she said.

Two years ago, the American Farm Bureau featured the Mosbys and their unharvested zucchini in a short video to illustrate the nationwide labor shortage. The video showed a tractor discing the field, and Burr mourning the waste. “We’re in America. You’re supposed to work hard to be able to produce something and get paid at the end of the day,” he said into the camera.

Rosella said the labor shortage has worsened since then. The farm has taken on Japanese trainees in an exchange program, hired teenagers to work half-days, and contacted migrant and refugee groups. The farm’s seasonal workers last year came from 14 countries and spoke eight languages.

All that doesn’t solve the problem, she said. “My fingers are crossed on the first day of every summer.”

Last fall, Rosella represented the Washington Farm Bureau in a 30-second TV commercial opposing a carbon tax on the November ballot. Standing in front of a picturesque barn, she said the tax would raise energy costs for farmers.

The ad got wide exposure. “My friends were calling, ‘You were on during an NFL football game!'”

She said she wasn’t ready for the reaction.

“I was accused of being paid for by big oil,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow!'”

She figures she talked to 50 strangers about the ad — some critical, some not.

She said she may increase her advocacy, plunging into the blogosphere. She’s hesitant, though.

“There’s so many judgy people out there. Do I want to mud my mind with their opinions? I’m not sure yet.”

Poste by:  By DON JENKINS Capital Press, July 5, 2019

Picture: Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Auburn, Wash., farmer Rosella Mosby on the farm she operates with her husband, Burr, in south King County.