Posted 1/05/16 (Tue)
By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
She didn’t dream of becoming a political lobbyist growing up.
Nor does she recall grand visions of her future as she roamed the family farm and played in the dirt.
“I felt incredibly average at everything,” she admits.
But those hours spent playing in the dirt instilled in Kayla Pulvermacher a passion for the land, the stewards who take care of it and a professional organization whose mission is to protect the way of life it fosters.
“I credit growing up on a farm with instilling a lot of who I am and what I do for a living,” says Pulvermacher, who serves as Director of Member Advocacy for the North Dakota Farmers Union – the state’s largest general farm organization serving more than 40,000 members.
A farm kid’s future off the farm
Pulvermacher says she struggled in high school to figure out what she wanted her professional path to be. Pulvermacher, who began attending NDFU summer camps in third grade and served as a counselor and cook there during college summers, initially majored in retail merchandising and apparel. She says that major was never a good fit, but then she chuckles and says she could someday dress politicians for a living.
Kidding aside, Pulvermacher recalls thinking wistfully of her father, who was doing what he loved every day on the farm. She switched her major to political science.
“I was good at being passionate about issues, and agriculture,” she says of her choice.
While Pulvermacher never climbed behind the steering wheel of production agriculture, she understood the family farm was instrumental to her identity and how she wanted to contribute as an adult.
Pulvermacher quickly emphasizes she never drove tractors or combines growing up: “God knows what I would have driven into,” she says, laughing.
She pauses, and her voice grows softer, reflective, as she shares memories of listening to her father and grandfather talk about farm policy and politics and the time she spent educating herself on issues in agriculture so she could join in on those conversations. Those moments of dialogue and interaction were precious to Pulvermacher.
“That was my way of bonding with my father and grandfather,” she says.
Those “dinner table” conversations out in the field where her mom would bring the kids for a hasty picnic so they could see their dad and grandpa during the harvest put Pulvermacher at ease in her current environment.
When the state legislature is in session, Pulvermacher can be found grabbing a quick bite with early bird senators and representatives by 7 a.m. before they head to committee work. From there she is listening to bills, presenting questions on bills, testifying, and promoting NDFU priorities. She finishes the evening hours by having dinner with legislators and colleagues and often doesn’t walk through her door until 9 p.m.
“It’s not for the weak of heart,” she says.
Pulvermacher and her team typically go through more than 1,000 bills during legislative sessions and test them against NDFU policy. “As a general farm organization, we have policy on just about everything,” she says.
She lists off examples: farm programs, state lending, state taxes, advocating for a national sex offender registry, health care reform and education.
Of NDFU’s successful advocacy, Pulvermacher mentions the North Dakota landowner bill of rights and defeating Measure Two in 2012 and Measure Five in 2014. (NDFU opposed Measure Two because it gave up local control of local services. NDFU opposed Measure Five based on constitutionality concerns and funding to purchase and remove agricultural land from production.
Fighting for family farms
Pulvermacher says her biggest professional joy and potential sorrow is NDFU’s fight against Senate Bill 2351. In March the state House of Representatives passed the bill, which provides an exemption from the state’s corporate farming ban so that corporations can rent or buy farmland for pig and dairy operations.
Pulvermacher and NDFU successfully scrambled this summer to gather more than 21,000 signatures in three months to refer SB 2351. Those signatures stopped the law from taking effect this summer; now North Dakotans will vote on the issue at the ballot box in June 2016.
“There will be a new face to agriculture if this passes,” says Pulvermacher with an edge in her voice. “I’m spending long nights of worrying what the results will be.”
The family farm lobbyist, who is in a full throttle campaign against the bill, believes if the exemption becomes a law, it will threaten and degrade the very identity of North Dakota. She says family farmers will not be able to compete with corporate pocketbooks in rental contracts and land purchases for production agriculture.
“The people who have their hands in the soil should be doing agriculture in North Dakota,” she says. “Family farms are the backbone of North Dakota’s economy.”
Pulvermacher says the dollars that family farms produce go back to communities throughout the state and provide a sense of rootedness and multigenerational ties and community loyalty rare to any other industry. “We are not just a family farm state, we are a family state because of it,” she says. “We care about our neighbors.”
Keeping farm in the family
Pulvermacher says lobbyists get a bad rap – at least North Dakotan lobbyist do.
“We act as educators,” says Pulvermacher of her role with citizen legislators. “What we bring them can’t be full of lies.”
For the kid who grew up watching her father carefully commit his time tending to his crop and fostering its growth and yield, she takes the same approach with the relationships she is growing – built on trust and integrity – with other lobbyists and legislators.
She has also brought her 5- and 8-year-old sons to the capitol so they can understand what she is doing when she is away from them and why that work is important.
“They may think their mother is a professional trick or treater,” she says, laughing, as she describes senators handing out candy to her eldest son as they left the senate floor.
Pulvermacher speaks softly as she tells of earlier years as a lobbyist – the long hours and trying to find balance – and her job adversely challenging her personal life. Her marriage ultimately failed.
She credits her ex-husband, who is an agronomist, and his wife, with providing daily stability and a constant collective commitment to co-parenting. The blended family all attend church, school activities and volunteer together.
“We try to be a unified family as much as possible,” she says.
She also takes her boys to the farm and is grateful her children can play in the same dirt she did as a child.
“This is where I want to be,” she says. “Where I want them to be.”
Personally, professionally, Pulvermacher remains grounded: “I’m so thankful I’ve gotten to work for what I’m incredibly passionate about. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”