When it comes to political clout, ranchers shouldn't have much. After all, there aren't many of them, and their numbers shrink every year. Why should the powers in national and state governments give them a second look?

That's the essential political problem as the national elections for U.S. President and Congress loom roughly a year away. The outcome of those elections will help determine the direction of American agriculture in the 21st century. A few wrong turns and ranching could go the way of the U.S. sheep industry, which has shriveled during the 1990s in the wake of negative political decisions.

Yet many ranchers shun politics. "I often hear that all politics is dirty and bad and we can't have a part in it," says Phyllis Gardner, chairman of the political action committee of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

But politics, she says, "is at the heart of everything we do. We're such a small minority and our futures are so controlled by government at every level, that we have to be active in the political process."

The cost of doing nothing is high. Critical issues involving international trade, food safety, the environment and taxation loom. In an industry awash in red ink, decisions on these and other critical issues could sink or save many of the nation's ranchers and feeders.

So what should you as an industry member do? Start by getting to know your representatives at the federal, state and local level. Getting to know them involves more than just asking for help when the crisis hits. Politics is a two-way street. You want something from the politicians and they want something from you.

Start By Giving Where do you start the relationship? One place is political giving. Money fuels today's political campaigns. It takes lots of money to buy the television ads that often swing an election.

As agriculture shrinks as a percentage of the voting base, political contributions become more important, says Gardner. Money can be used to cut two ways - to help candidates favorable to agriculture and to help defeat those opposed to it.

Politicians also need campaign workers. If you can't give money, give time to candidates favorable to agriculture.

"If you have never given your time or money to an elected official, they're probably not going to respond when you call," says Gardner.

Ultimately, politicians need votes. There aren't very many full-time ranchers. Politicians know that. But the voting power of the ranch lobby grows when you add the votes of spouses, retired ranchers, and friends and relatives sympathetic to ranching.

Even a small number of votes makes a difference in a close election. In the 1960 presidential race, for example, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by about 120,000 votes out of more than 68 million cast.

Ranching's political clout can be magnified further by aligning with other agriculture interests, such as grain farmers, cattle feeders, equipment dealers, veterinary products companies and other allied industries.

Ranchers can gain even more clout by forming alliances with non-agricultural groups.

"Ranchers and farmers are a declining part of the electorate," says Chuck Hassebrook, program director for Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs, an advocacy group for farmers and ranchers. "One of the ways we can maintain power, is to find other groups we can work with."

In many regions, for example, ranchers are aligning with environmental groups, outdoors councils and the powerful hunting and fishing lobby to keep open spaces free from development.

Ultimately, ranching will need a sympathetic ear from both political parties. For that reason, experts caution against putting all the eggs in one basket. Simply put, it may not benefit ranching if all ranchers are in the same political party.

"I don't think you're ever well served in politics if one party can take you for granted," says Hassebrook.

Target Your Efforts Since ranching has limited resources, it has to target its efforts. One area to pay particular attention to is the U.S. House of Representatives, says Chandler Keys, NCBA vice-president for public policy and lobbyist in Washington. The House is increasingly swayed by the whims of suburban voters, whose interests sometimes run counter to agriculture, particularly on water, air and endangered species issues. By contrast, "the Senate is much less of a problem (for ranching)," he says.

Ultimately, ranching and other agricultural sectors may have to take their case to the American people, who often forget the role that agriculture plays in the economy. Today, much of the American economy is thriving. But in agriculture, "everything that we're selling is losing money," says Gardner.

"That can only continue for so long before the rest of the country will begin to suffer. If we don't make money, we don't buy new equipment or make other outlays for capital improvement, and that eventually would affect the rest of the economy."

If none of this makes sense, talk to sheep ranchers about the cost of political weakness. In 1993, Congress eliminated the wool payments that were the difference between survival and collapse for many sheep ranchers. These payments, which came from tariffs on imported wool, helped to cushion low prices and the heavy losses to predators that many operators suffer. In the six years since the payments were eliminated, nearly a quarter of the industry's producers have quit, and breeding stock has dropped by more than 27%.

"There's no question that in 1993 we did not have the political clout to hold onto that program," says Bryce Reece, executive director of the Wyoming Wool Growers. "We pulled out every stop and used every political chit we had. But the steamroller that was coming down was more than anything we could do."

The bottom line for ranchers is that political clout comes from an investment of time, money and effort. Without clout, ranching could go the way of the sheep industry.

"We set up this system 200 years ago and it's all based on participation," says the NCBA's Keys. "What the founding fathers wanted Americans to do was participate in the process. And that's the point. If you don't participate, no one will look out for you."

Most ranchers follow the political issues that impact them directly. But there are good reasons to watch what happens to associated industries, such as farming, cattle feeding and meat packing.

One area to watch is the future of the Freedom to Farm Act, which mandates the elimination of the agricultural subsidy system that many corn farmers had come to rely on.

The corn markets impact feedlot profitability. Anything that impacts feedlot profitability impacts the price cow/calf operators get for their calves. While many farmers favor the new leeway provided by Freedom to Farm, others lament the loss of the financial safety net that the old subsidy system provided. Look for efforts to modify or scrap the act.

In addition, the feeding industry will likely come under increasingly tough environmental restraints that could also add to the cost of doing business. Meat packing is another area to watch. Tougher food safety requirements could raise packer costs.

The lesson here is clear. Trouble often rolls downhill. If packer and feeder costs go up as a result of government regulation, they will look for ways to minimize the financial damage. If they can't pass the costs up the line to retailers and consumers, they may look for ways to offset those costs by paying less for calves.

And don't forget about the president. The biggest political event of the year 2000 will almost certainly be the presidential election. While the president can't pass legislation, the office has an enormous impact on agriculture.

A presidential veto can block harmful legislation, or short circuit new laws that could be helpful to ranching. The presidential choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency also has an enormous impact on agriculture. So do the president's efforts for or against free trade, rangeland reform and tougher food safety measures. The president also appoints replacements to the Supreme Court, which makes numerous decisions impacting the future of agriculture each year.