February 20, 2020
Chris Radatz, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation’s executive director, recently announced his retirement, effective June 1.
Radatz, who grew up on a crop and dairy farm outside of Lewiston, has worked for the organization nearly 44 years. His first job started in September 1976 when he was hired as a fieldman to work as liaison between the state Farm Bureau and 11 county Farm Bureaus in southeast Minnesota. Over the years, he worked as Young Farmer & Rancher program coordinator, state annual meeting coordinator, field services division director, and director of marketing and commodity services division.
Prior to becoming executive director in July 2013, Radatz was a well-known individual at the state Capitol, working as Farm Bureau’s state legislative lobbyist and director of governmental relations.
Radatz’s family history is steeped in county and state Farm Bureau involvement. His maternal great-grandfather was the second vice president on the Winona County Farm Bureau when it was formed in 1919. His maternal grandfather was vice president of the Winona County Farm Bureau and was their representative at the 1921 Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation meeting in St. Paul. He was elected president of the Winona County Farm Bureau in 1926.
Radatz remembers his mom telling about him going to St. Paul to lobby the state Legislature for more funding to eradicate the invasive buckthorn plant. And his father served on the Winona County Farm Bureau board of directors in the 1950s. The image of his parents’ involvement is permanently recorded: He has a picture of them boarding the train in Winona to attend the Minnesota Farm Bureau annual meeting in St. Paul.
FOUR DECADES OF HISTORY, EXPERIENCE: Chris Radatz worked in several capacities with Minnesota Farm Bureau, including state lobbyist.
Knowing he leaves with a wealth of knowledge, history and experience with state politics and agriculture, The Farmer asked Radatz to reflect on his tenure at Farm Bureau. Here are our questions and Radatz’s responses, lightly edited.
What were a few of your memorable experiences serving as director of government relations?
First of all — and this is a recurring theme — it is the people you get to know and work with. There are so many dedicated, hardworking legislators and public officials I worked with that I cannot name them all. I learned something from every one of them and thank them for their patience and guidance in working with me.
I have always had an interest in politics and government. As a lobbyist representing Minnesota Farm Bureau, I got to spend most of my days at the state Capitol watching and directly participating in the legislative process. What I found interesting was working with a particular senator or representative on a specific issue or piece of legislation. I would be in daily, sometimes hourly, contact with that person as we tried to move the issue through the legislative process. When we got through that process we would move on to another issue with another set of players. That relationship that was established working closely together remained strong over time.
I learned something every day about the legislative process and all the paths that had to be followed and bases covered to make sure legislation was either passed or stopped, and being able to experience that firsthand was memorable.
The bond that was developed with the other lobbyists working on agricultural issues is very special to me. This is not a large group, and we really depended on each other for whatever successes we were able to achieve for agriculture on behalf of our respective organizations.
Sometimes we take for granted what a truly magnificent and beautiful building our state Capitol is. Being able to be in that building on a daily basis and appreciate the beauty of the marble pillars, the art work, the murals on the ceiling and the portrait of Abraham Lincoln above the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Representative chambers is something I hope none of us who can experience it ever take lightly.
The lighting of the chandelier in the Capitol rotunda on the day we celebrate statehood is a special moment. The Capitol was under renovation, and they moved the chandelier down from the ceiling and placed it in one of the hallways of the Capitol. It was really cool to walk right up to it and inspect it.
On a regular basis, what was memorable to me was when I would be talking to a representative or senator explaining Farm Bureau’s position on a particular issue, I always felt that person could see the four or five or maybe more Farm Bureau members they knew as we were talking and that I was representing their concerns.
How different was it at the Capitol “back in the day” compared to today?
The adoption of technology is probably the biggest difference. When I first started with Farm Bureau, we would have district meetings at the end of the legislative session, and we would have literally hundreds of members attend to learn what had happened. Now, you can watch committee hearings and floor sessions live on TV or livestreamed on the internet.
When I first started, you needed to be at the Capitol to pick up hard copies of bill introductions and the actual bills themselves. Now, all of that is available from anywhere over the internet. I personally think, despite what some would say, this has increased transparency and public engagement.
A really big change is how we communicate with each other. One of the most important items I had when I started lobbying was a pager. We had a code that if someone needed to talk with you, they would send their phone number twice in a row or send their phone number with 911 behind it. That meant you dropped what you were doing and ran to the pay phones on either side of the elevators in the Capitol and hope one was available so you could make a call.
Then we moved to cellphones, which were more convenient and efficient. In fact, I don’t think the pay phones are even there anymore. Now with iPhones, you can carry on an email or text conversation while you are sitting in a committee hearing without having to leave the room.
What did you wish farmers knew about your job as a lobbyist that they did not know?
I think many farmers realize this, that relationships make all the difference. I would tell our members they need to have established a relationship with their elected official so that when they send that official an email, it will get read. The elected official needs to recognize your name. As constituents, they can be a tremendous resource to their representative and senator, but that takes time to get to that point. Don’t wait until the day of a vote to start building that relationship.
Also, the legislative process is not always black and white. Sometimes, if you can make baby steps towards your goal, you should take them. I guess the old saying of a half a loaf of bread is better than no bread can apply. There is a lot of strategy that is involved in getting legislation passed or stopped. It is a little bit like an NFL play caller holding the play sheet over his mouth as he relays plays to the quarterback. Hopefully focus is on the results of the play not the play itself.
What differs today, compared to 40-plus years ago, when working with farmers on policy?
Farmers are engaged today in policy issues as much as they were 40 or even 100 years ago when Farm Bureau was formed. How they communicate has changed. There is more direct communication with policy makers today through emails, texts, phone calls and social media, and probably less town hall-type meetings. Today, farmers can advocate for their issues from the tractor cab or the combine. They don’t have to go to a meeting to have their voices heard.
Throughout my career, I have always been amazed at farmer’s creativity and willingness to try something new. A great example of this is the growth of the bioquefuels industry that started from scratch and now is an important part of the agricultural economy and one of many solutions agriculture brings to the table in addressing environmental concerns. Farmer are continuously adopting changes to their farming and management practices to meet the needs of today’s consumers.
Today, it is a little more difficult to reach farmers at home. Back when I started, county Farm Bureaus would hold membership drives and spend a day with several leaders going out and encouraging their neighbors to join our organization. Today, that is more difficult because you don’t find as many farmers at home as you did then. Today, farmers are easier to reach with a text or email. As an organization, we have had to adopt how we communicate with our members and farmers in general. This is not a bad thing but a reality that we are adjusting to.
As an organization, we can provide the resources for our members to make effective contact with elected and appointed officials. We can provide background information, help develop speaking points, and offer tips on successful communication strategies. We still depend on farmers to let public officials know how proposed legislation or policy will impact them directly. That is the message that is needed today as much as ever.
One experienced Farm Bureau leader encouraged all farmers to include advocacy in their annual farm budget. Commit to developing and maintaining positive relationships with those public officials. Don’t forgot local public officials, township officers, county commissioners and local school boards.
As I look around, I see a lot of people I have gotten to know over the years that are in public service at the local, state and national level. That means there are more than a few that will also be entering the next chapter of their lives. We are going to need the next generation to step up when opportunities present themselves.
What are the differences between serving as executive director verses legislative lead?
The executive director position includes supervising the entire operations of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation and Minnesota Farm Bureau Foundation. This ranges from supervising the MFBF staff, developing and implementing a fiscally responsible and sustainable annual budget, working with county Farm Bureaus and their leadership, maintaining a strong partnership with our Farm Bureau Financial Services partner, supporting the activities of our state Young Farmer & Rancher and Promotion & Education committees, working with our public relations team to ensure we have an effective media and consumer outreach program, working with our public policy team on our policy development and policy advocacy efforts, and working with our foundation director on growing and supporting our foundation.
As legislative lead, the focus was on policy development and policy advocacy. The advantage of having that experience was getting to know our county Farm Bureaus and their leadership who are integral parts of the entire organization.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working as executive director?
Working directly with the MFBF board of directors, county Farm Bureaus and their leadership, and our staff. These are very talented and dedicated people who are committing their time and talents to promote and advance Farm Bureau and all of agriculture.
It was most rewarding to see the growth in knowledge and confidence in these leaders as they took advantage of the many educational and learning opportunities they participated in. To watch new county Farm Bureau board members move on to be members of our state board of directors, serve on national committees and become involved in the leadership of other organizations. We have had many individuals who have served on our staff for a part of their career move on to leadership positions in other organizations and in public service.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share with your successor?
We are in our 101st year as an organization. We have a strong foundation on which to build. Look at our strengthens and use those to maximum advantage in facing the challenges of the future. Be a good listener and ask questions. There are usually two sides to every story and both sides need to be taken into consideration before a course of action is decided on.
I always strived to treat others as I wanted to be treated. Don’t forget this is a team sport and the stronger the Farm Bureau team is and the more you support the Farm Bureau team, the brighter the future will be.
What are your immediate plans once you retire?
Having the time to enjoy all the great things a Minnesota summer has to offer without any time constraints. Spend more time with family and travel more.
The Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation is in the process of accepting applications for the executive editor position. Information is available here. Deadline for applications is March 16.
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