Retirement of a grassroots legend

Mary Kay Thatcher is retiring as senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation at the end of January. I would be willing to bet that, over the years, the Iowa native has become one of the most well known advocates for U.S. farmers and ranchers. While an advocate for all aspects of agriculture, her expertise was on farm programs, crop insurance, conservation and credit issues.

I met Thatcher years ago when she spoke to farmers and ranchers in Abilene, Kansas. I was impressed with her common sense knowledge of production agriculture and how public policy got intertwined with the daily lives of producers. That speech, like so many given in that era, touched on regulatory reform, a safety net for producers and the need for policies encouraging young people to return to the farm. Thatcher recognized the quality of life available in rural communities and the need to stay engaged with leaders at the local, state and federal levels. Her comments still resonate today.

When people think of lobbyists today they often view them as self-serving and dishonest. Thatcher, on the other hand, set an example as a lobbyist whose only goal was to advocate for her members by developing policies with practical common sense. Her straight-forward advice for Farm Bureau members was to be informed and be engaged.

Her success stories are many and she can begrudgingly admit some disappointments. It has not gotten any easier for young people to return to the farm because of the capital requirements. Many rural counties and communities face population declines—particularly those in areas where there is little diversification. The continued consolidation of services has not made it any easier to attract jobs as companies look to streamline operations and cut costs particularly in tougher times. War and downturns, such as the Great Recession of 2008 and the subsequent years of recovery, all play a part in not only what farmers and ranchers face but what lobbyists and elected officials have to undertake when the economic climate shifts.

I am sure Thatcher will have few regrets about her lifetime of community service. Most people who serve in those positions realize that times change as do the mood of members. Thatcher tried to advance the interests of farmers, ranchers and rural residents in a pragmatic way.

That delicate skill is required now more than ever as the world keeps getting to be a smaller and more complicated place. My hope is Thatcher will enjoy retirement knowing she made a difference to farmers and ranchers across the country and she did so by being a thoughtful speaker and an advocate for the people she admired and represented.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].