The ties that bind
Eastern Washington legislator works to defend small businesses, agriculture
By Trista Crossley
Although Washington Sen. Judy Warnick isn’t primarily a producer, she has deep ties to the agricultural industry, and she’s known throughout the state as a stalwart champion of farmers.
Warnick (R-Moses Lake) first entered public service in 2007 when she was elected as a state representative for the 13th District. In 2014, she ran to fill the state senate position being vacated by Janéa Holmquist Newbry. Warnick easily won the seat with more than 80 percent of the vote. The 13th District includes all or parts of Grant, Kittitas, Lincoln and Yakima counties. Warnick and her husband, Roy, own a small business in Moses Lake, and it was that business, she said, that propelled her to first run for office.
“A lot of regulatory issues that the government decides impact our small businesses. That was the first thing that got me interested in state government and going over to Olympia to advocate for small businesses,” she explained. “Since I’ve been there, I’ve realized how the ag community is really impacted as well. We are in need of legislators that understand what farming is all about.”
Warnick’s ties to Washington agriculture began with her maternal great-grandparents who homesteaded in the late 1800s near Edwall. That farm remained in the family until the 1980s, and Warnick, herself, grew up on a small farm in Deer Park. Besides their small business, the Warnicks also own a farm in Grant County that they lease out. That background, Warnick said, gives her a connection to agriculture. She referenced a drawing she has hanging in her office of her uncles bringing in grain in horse-drawn wagons in the 1920s.
“It reminds me of where I came from. It’s in my blood and in my DNA to be a farmer,” she said, adding that her favorite part of holding office is traveling around her district and meeting people. “When we were told several years ago that District 13 was going to include Lincoln County, I was ecstatic. I love Lincoln County and the people who live and work there.”
Warnick is chair of the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee, a position she uses to educate her colleagues from both sides of the aisle about agriculture and rural development.
“When I was given the gavel, it was kind of fun. It’s lots more responsibility, but I can also help direct and craft legislation,” she said, adding that the Senate leadership may expand her committee to also include trade. “Agricultural products are dependent on good trade lines, keeping those trade lines open and working with other countries and our own ports to keep them open.”
One of the hardest parts of serving in the state legislature for Warnick is trying to convince people and agencies who haven’t been on a farm or who have different goals than farmers that producers are good stewards of their land.
“It’s frustrating when I hear that farmers don’t know what they are doing,” she said. “It is a slow process to educate not only agencies but other colleagues in the legislature because a good many of them don’t understand farming. I sometimes get impatient trying to say that we need the water, we need the land, and yes, we need to use fertilizer sometimes. I get frustrated when it just doesn’t seem to sink in that we are doing a good job.”
Warnick encouraged farmers to get involved in local and state associations, such as the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Farm Bureau and Grange. She said one of the most impactful things producers can do is travel to Olympia to meet with legislators and staff and invite them to tour farm operations. She emphasized the need to include legislators’ staff, because of how critical their support role is when crafting and understanding legislation.
Looking at the upcoming legislative session, Warnick said herbicide/pesticide regulations and the recent state supreme court decision that limits permit-exempt wells are two of the challenges that agriculture will have to face. And looming over everything is education funding.
“The biggest issue we are all facing is how to fund McCleary. It’s going to impact every other decision we make this year as far as budgets,” she explained, adding that protecting current funding for ag programs is important. “I’ll also be working with Sen. Sharon Brown and others to educate the new administration in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), especially regarding leases. We are trying to put legislation together to make DNR be more flexible with farmers.”
Sens. Warnick and Brown were both involved in an issue last summer regarding the early termination of DNR leases in Benton County. It was their involvement that encouraged DNR to offer some compensation to the farmers who were losing their leases and shed some light on DNR’s lease language that many farmers have found questionable. For more information see the November 2016 issue of Wheat Life at wheatlife.org/pastissues.html for more information.
The two senators also recently hosted a farm hall meeting in the Tri-Cities to hear directly from the agricultural community about issues and topics of concern. Saving and protecting family farms was the biggest message Warnick heard from the attendees at the meeting. Labor issues and encouraging young people to take up ag careers were also discussed. See page 10 for more information.
Warnick laughed but pulled no punches when asked what she thought the role of government should be in a farmer’s life.
“Get out of the way. Give us the right to farm the way we know how to do it. The government’s role should be to help with infrastructure, to build roads, build railroads,” she said. “I just enjoy this job so much, representing good people trying to make a living and making the world a better place for their own children. I see that every day, not just in agriculture.”