Scott Pruitt, the new U.S. EPA administrator, visited Mike Starkey’s farm near Brownsburg, Ind. That was followed by a visit to Indianapolis from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the during the Indiana State Fair. Key leaders visiting Indiana is a positive thing. Such visits indicate that these new leaders and the Trump administration view Indiana agriculture as important.
Both Pruitt and Perdue appear to be capable, seasoned leaders with plenty of experience for their positions. Both seemed appreciative of the opportunity to cooperate with Indiana on key agricultural challenges.
Despite all the positives, the visits left me with a few misgivings. First, very few Hoosiers got to meet or hear either Pruitt or Perdue. The main purpose in each case was to listen to farmer ideas, first on the Waters of the U.S. rule with Administrator Pruitt, and later on the farm bill with Secretary Perdue. Yet in both cases, staffers opted to keep the listening sessions limited to only a couple dozen people. Both times, those allowed to attend the closed-door listening sessions were primarily Indiana ag leaders, chosen beforehand.
The reason given for a limited audience and no press coverage of the actual listening sessions was stated as “to allow the free flow of thoughts and ideas from those in the meeting.” If the press was present, some people might not speak as freely.
Perhaps that’s a legitimate point. But it broke with tradition of how so-called listening sessions typically are conducted in Indiana. Not long ago, when an earlier farm bill was up for debate, I distinctly remember sitting in the Indiana Farm Bureau building at the state fairgrounds among perhaps 300 people, listening to people give their views on farm bill issues and then hearing responses from government leaders. It was eye-opening because some who spoke were interested in nutrition programs and changes in things like the Women, Infants and Children program, which we don’t typically consider as ag topics. The discussion was orderly, but everyday people were given the opportunity to talk.
During those earlier listening sessions, the press was allowed to listen! But Pruitt’s recent visit was so under wraps that only two ag reporters were allowed to attend. As soon as the pair completed a joint 10-minute interview, they were whisked out of the farm shop by an EPA assistant before the listening session even began.
Why is the current administration taking this tack? Is the drubbing they sometimes get in the mainstream press clouding their judgment? Do they not see a difference between mainstream media and farm press?
Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. The bottom line is that so far, the ag press doesn’t seem to have the same access to government officials that it enjoyed in the past. Does that matter?
Think about it this way. If the goal is to stir up thinking and debate about the farm bill, how can most Hoosier farmers be motivated to provide input if they aren’t allowed to attend these sessions? How will they learn what was discussed in these sessions and the views of government leaders if the ag press isn’t allowed to listen?
We will continue providing as much coverage as possible. Limited access makes that more difficult, and starts the wheels turning about where the right to a free-flowing environment ends and freedom of the press, and of all the people, begins.