Story also published in the Midwest Messenger & Tri State Neighbor
Anna Zeleny knew she’d be stepping outside of her comfort zone when she traveled to Lincoln to testify before the Nebraska Legislature’s Agriculture Committee last year.
But she put her nerves aside because it was important for lawmakers to hear her story as they were deciding the fate of a bill to provide support for local meat processors, producers, and consumers affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Anna’s advocacy efforts for Legislative Bill (LB) 324, which also included media interviews and writing a Midlands Voices article for the Omaha World-Herald, have earned her the Center for Rural Affairs’ 2021 Citizenship Award.
The award is given to an individual or individuals who actively participate in the civic process for creating public policy, and who work closely with the Center to advance public policies that strengthen family farms, ranches, and rural communities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the Oakland (Nebraska) Processing Plant and other processors across the country,” said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center. “Having Anna step up to testify and share her story allowed lawmakers to hear firsthand what those challenges are and how LB 324 would assist them.”
Outside of her family, friends, and customers, Anna knew many people had no idea the work she and other employees at the Oakland Processing Plant were putting in or how they were navigating the small work space to serve an influx of new customers as work at larger packing plants in the region slowed during the pandemic.
“If you don’t live in Oakland or aren’t driving by the locker, you don’t see that, or understand what is going on behind those closed doors,” she said.
Center Policy Director Johnathan Hladik, who’s also a livestock producer, did know, and Anna said he offered her the encouragement she needed to testify. She was joined by her father-in-law, Mike Boell, owner of the plant. They spoke about how the bill would help their business grow and meet the challenges they face.
“Not only were we educating the public, but we were educating lawmakers,” Anna said. “Not everybody understands what we are going through.”
LB 324, which created the Independent Processor Assistance Program (IPAP), and made it easier for consumers to buy meat directly from producers or processors, was unanimously approved by the Legislature in 2021.
Earlier this year, Anna returned to Lincoln to join other processors to testify before the Appropriations Committee in support of a bill to provide $10 million to IPAP from the state’s allotment of funds from the American Recovery Program Act.
Having spent days writing her testimony the first time around, Anna said she decided that this year, it was best to leave the statistics to others and just speak from her heart.
“My role was advocating for us on a personal level,” she said. “I didn't even write my testimony on a piece of paper. It was how I was feeling and what we are personally experiencing. I told myself, ‘Anna, nobody knows what you are going through and this is the only way to show them right now.’”
She also brought a new perspective to the discussion, one that could be beneficial as longtime owners look to retire.
“So many lockers have closed down lately because nobody will take them over,” she said. “To be able to be a female advocate and also bring the youth and family aspect of it was important.”
In the weeks following that hearing, many lawmakers mentioned how important it was to hear directly from Anna and others. The funding was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor on April 13.
The hearing was also a good opportunity for meat processors to show their support for one another. Anna said the business is competitive, but many times during the past two years they have shown up for each other when supplies and other help were needed.
“It was nice being able to see some of them in person, give them a hug, encourage them to keep going and tell them if they need anything to call because we are all in this together,” she said.
Receiving a Citizenship Award for her efforts never crossed Anna’s mind. She said she’s thankful to Johnathan and the Center’s staff for going to bat for meat processors.
“He was the only person that gave us a fighting chance and actually understood,” she said. “The time he put into it was more than I could have ever asked for.”
With IPAP in place and funding approved, Anna, Mike, and the employees at the Oakland plant are hoping to secure some assistance for a larger facility that is under construction. They also remain committed to their customers and community.
“We are here for everybody—the little guy having two beef in their backyard and the feedlots that are selling their meat to larger facilities but have a customer that wants to buy just one,” she said.
Feature photos: Top: Anna Zeleny received the Center's 2021 Citizenship Award. Bottom: Anna is pictured with state Sen. Tom Brandt, Center Policy Director Johnathan Hladik, and other Nebraska meat processors the state capitol building in Lincoln.