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IRI: Study Tour for Georgian Parliamentarians

Sunday, September 21, 2014 to Thursday, October 2, 2014

On September 21, 2014, a group of five Georgian parliamentarians began their study visit to the United States, organized by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Institute for Representative Government (IRG).  The group included lawmakers from the Agrarian Affairs committee in parliament, including: Committee Chairman Gigla Agulashvili (Georgian Dream – Republicans), Revaz Shavlokashvili (Georgian Dream - Conservatives), Temuri Maisuradze (Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia), Omar Nishianidze (Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia), and Vaja Chitashvili (United National Movement).  IRI’s Resident Country Director Andrea Keerbs, Georgia Program Officer Preston Lindler, and Local Program Officer Vladimer Razmadze accompanied the group.

The program began on Monday, September 22, in Minnesota, by jumping straight into farm visits. The group left Minneapolis that morning and traveled a couple hours northwest to Sauk Center, Minnesota.  There, the delegation visited several family-owned working farms, including operations specializing in crops (corn and soybeans), dairy, and pork production.  In addition to touring the farms and learning about their production inputs and methods, the study tour participants were also able to spend a significant amount of time discussing the challenges that farmers face with marketing their crops, and with obtaining financing from banks and other sources.  As the purpose of the trip was to help familiarize the members of parliament with agricultural policy and practices in the United States, IRI thought it best to begin the trip with the first rung in the production chain, as later meetings would incorporate research, packaging and delivery.

The second day of the trip (September 23) began at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Agriculture and Natural Sciences (IFANS).  After a brief introductory meeting with the dean and members of the faculty, the delegation made its way over to the school’s dairy farm and animal science facilities.  In contrast to the previous day’s production farm, the school’s research farm was significantly smaller, and focused on developing better techniques for feeding and raising cattle, and for increasing milk production.  Participants were able to discuss feed and grazing techniques with the professors, and how best to adapt such techniques to the small multi-purpose family farms that are so common in Georgia.  Following the visit to IFANS, the delegation visited a small artisanal honey producer, Honey Bear Honey, to discuss the importance of bee cultivation, particularly as related to the production of fruits and nuts, both of which are key Georgian agricultural products.

The afternoon of September 23 featured a meeting with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), which included the State Commissioner of Agriculture David Frederickson.  This was the first true policy-oriented meeting, as the Commissioner freely discussed the role of the MDA, including supports for farmers, and policy development priorities.  The delegation was intrigued to hear about Minnesota’s efforts to develop cold-hardy grapes varietals for the purpose of developing the state’s wine industry.  Both parties expressed interest in developing future exchanges between the MDA and the Georgian Parliament whereby the Georgians would assist Minnesota with their viticulture development, and the MDA would help Georgia develop its cash crops and modern farming techniques.  The day concluded by returning to the IFANS to meet with the beekeeping program to discuss the contributions that the school has made toward preventing bee hive death, and to effectively using the bees as crop pollinators on the university research farms.

On Wednesday, September 24, the delegation went out to the University of Minnesota’s Arboretum in Chanhassen, MN, just west of Minneapolis. Starting at the research center, the delegation witnessed the University’s research work on development of cold-hardy grape varietals (for both wine and table), and apples.  After a tour of the Arboretum, the delegation packed up and headed toward Ellsworth, WI.  On the way, the group stopped off in Burnsville, MN to meet with Congressman John Kline (MN-02) in his district office.  The Congressman discussed his work as Chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives, and different ways in which development of the agricultural sector could help put rural Georgians back to work.  After an hour with the Congressman, the group continued on to Wisconsin, where they met with Paul Bauer, the Chairman of the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.  At the Creamery, the delegation was able to discuss the production and marketing processes of the cooperative, and how the cooperative benefits the farmers who are the shareholders. 

Thursday, September 25 was the last day in Minnesota, and featured a single meeting with Congressman Erik Paulsen (MN-03).  Congressman Paulsen is a long-time friend of IRI, and has met with Georgian delegations in the past.  The discussion focused on the benefits of agricultural development, and the financial measures which the government can employ to best support growth in the sector.  A second scheduled meeting with Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN-04) had to be cancelled at the last moment.  That evening, the delegation flew to Washington, DC for the concluding leg of the trip.

On Friday, September 26, IRI took the members to the United States Department of Agriculture.  At the USDA, they met with the Dr. Melissa Bailey, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service, as well as the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and the Rural Development Service (RDS).  During the meeting with the Administrator, the delegation discussed the best methods for marketing Georgian agricultural products, including options for labeling and otherwise distinguishing them on the world market (i.e. Made in Georgia or something similar).  They also discussed methods for verifying products as organic and GMO-free, so that they can be sold on the European market.  Staff members from the FAS and RDS discussed programs that they use to help develop the capacities of small farmers in the United States, including micro lending programs, and support for cooperative development.  The FAS also discussed some of their projects in Georgia, including the Georgia National Animal Health Project, and offered to help the delegation establish closer contacts with this and other programs running in Georgia.  The FAS was able to provide the delegation with an old Russian-language document laying out the step-by-step process for forming and running a cooperative.  At the request of the members of parliament, IRI has assumed the responsibility for having this document and the presentations from the meeting translated, duplicated, and disseminated to participants.

After a very busy week of meetings, IRI arranged for the delegation to be guests of honor at a Georgian Embassy reception on Friday night, which also encompassed the visits of the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Agriculture.  On Saturday, September 27, IRI staff took the delegation on a sight-seeing and cultural tour in Washington, DC, including a baseball game on the afternoon of September 28. 

The final full day of meetings was on Monday, September 29.  The delegation left early in the morning to go to College Park, MD and the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  The meetings at UMD included a discussion of sustainable agriculture and appropriate educational models to instill the necessary ideals to make such an agricultural model permanent and profitable.  Also included was a discussion of the importance of honeybees to the agricultural industry and  problems facing beekeepers in the United States, including hive death and mite infestations, as well as the best way to treat these issues.  After lunch, the group drove out to the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Upper Marlboro, MD, home to one of several research farms run by the University.  In addition to seeing the university’s experiments with grapes, berries and hops, the delegation was able to observe a horticulture class as they harvested vegetables for use by UMD Dining Services. 

The business portion of the trip concluded with a lunch on Tuesday, September 30, with former members of congress, which was co-arranged with IRG.  The former members in attendance were the Honorable Nancy Johnson (R - CT), Martin Frost (D – TX), Jim Coyne (R – PA), and Larry LaRocco (D – ID).  The dinner was primarily an exchange of experiences in elected office, including discussions of constituent services and policy priorities.  Following lunch, the delegation was able to tour the Capitol Building, as guests of Congressman Paulsen’s office, before heading to the airport to depart for Georgia. 

IRI considers the trip to be a success.  All the meetings resulted in very positive feedback from the delegation, and the members of parliament were very active in engaging the experts in questions of policy and implementation.  Between meetings, and during transportation time and dinners, the delegates actively discussed their findings from the meetings, and the possible implementations for the Georgian context.  While it is still too soon to see actual policy results, as parliament has not been back in session for very long, and as anything will have to go through the standard committee process before making it to the floor for a vote, IRI does expect that there will be some returns soon.  Primarily, IRI expects that the committee members will be in contact with their counterparts to discuss further cooperation.  In fact, by the time that the group had arrived in Washington, DC, they had already reached out to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to begin discussion of possible exchanges.  While it remains to be seen where these discussions will lead, IRI will certainly keep IRG posted on the results.