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Policy and Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

Policy and Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

As the visibility of women in agriculture increases and the number of women involved in policy organizations and policy leadership increases there is always discussions about ways to increase involvement and attendance at our organizations. Demands on time in these days is extensive and it is impossible to fit in everything one wants to do or pursue or be involved in. It is understandable when someone says they cannot be involved in a board or organization because they have other priorities, other obligations, young children, or not enough help on the farm. When a woman says they do not come because they are intimidated or do not feel like they are experienced enough, that disappoints me. The disappointment is not with the woman herself and certainly not with inexperience. I am disappointed that myself and others in the industry have not done enough to create a welcoming environment. I do want to talk specifically about “having enough experience” or “enough knowledge.” Neither of those exists . . . but I can see why people feel that way. So let me tell you a story . . .

Back to the Start 

As many know, I am a fourth generation farmer, so I have grown up in this industry but I did not grow up in a policy setting. My dad is a farmer that has limited interest in policy development – over the years he has been a town council member of our small town, basketball coach in various stents, as well as serving on the County Farm Service Agency County Committee – but policy was not his thing. He has been a long time member of the Montana Grain Growers Association (MGGA) however he never has attended convention or done much more than send in his annual dues every year and browse the monthly magazine. I also joined the organization when I returned to the farm. My experience with policy was limited to a few trips to the Farm Service Agency to pick up documents to take to my dad and a crash course in signing up as a Primary Operator when I came back to the farm in the summer of 2012.

In October or November of 2012 we received our ballots in the mail to vote on area directors for the MGGA. I noticed our district had an empty seat and write in ballots were an option, on a whim I wrote in my name and my dad’s name. I had not a clue what the responsibilities might be, but it looked like a great way to learn about Montana agriculture and some of the issues facing the industry. That was an understatement . . .

Not long after I mailed off the ballot I got a call from a Malta, MT phone number, on the other end of the line was the President of the MGGA Brian Eggebrecht. He said “I hear you might be interested in being a director.” I replied “Yes”. He said “Well come up to Convention in November and we’ll get you started.”

Buried in those few weeks was an important lesson, if no one knows you are interested, they will never ask. It is impossible for us on the inside of an organization to know if there is someone on the outside hoping to be involved. We can reach out to all sorts of people, but if for whatever reason we have never crossed paths or like myself you are new to the industry or area, it is hard for us to know you want to join if you do not reach out. Voting myself into the Montana Grain Growers Association was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Inexperience and Introverted 

It shocks most people if I tell them I am introverted. I would barely meet the definition but I struggle with small talk, large crowds of people I do not know, and in general I can struggle outside of my comfort zone. It stresses me out, even today, at the thought of attending events where I do not know anyone. My first convention was honestly stressful, I did not know anyone and I was OVERWHELMED with information. I honestly scheduled out times in the day where I hung out in my room just to decompress. I had pages of notes of things to look up.

I also distinctly remember walking around and looking at all of the guys with “Past President” ribbons on their name badges. At the time their names blurred together but now I consider almost all of them my friends, many of whom I talk to often. I remember watching them though, scattered across the rooms, holding court with their friends and peers. They discussed an assortment of policy issues, almost none of them I knew anything about nor did I have anything to contribute to the conversations. But I remember thinking “I want to be like them.” I wanted to be a policy leader like Bing Von Bergen (who I was in awe of because he was nearing his term as the President of the National Association of Wheat Growers), Gordon Stoner (he was beginning his run through NAWGs officer chairs), Lochiel Edwards, Brian Eggebrecht, Gary Broyles, Dale Shuler (I later learned both Gary and Dale were past presidents of NAWG), Kevin Bradley, Will Roehm, Keith Schott (who is my neighbor), Ryan McCormick and many others.

I love Google

I have often been told “you are a walking encyclopedia” – that is an epic overstatement. What I am though – is a prolific researcher, I also am lucky enough to be a fast reader and have a good memory. I am rarely without a computer with an internet connection or a phone and google is always a few clicks away. The first few meetings I went to I spend most of them taking notes and googling acronyms and terms. Unfortunately the policy advocacy does not come with a list of acronyms and it would be outdated in several days anyway there is always something new.

My 2nd meeting for the MGGA was in Helena in February of 2013. The legislature was in session and we always meet in Helena when the legislature was in session. I vividly remember a discussion on “falling numbers” in wheat. Meanwhile I am sitting there thinking “what in god’s name is a falling number?? I grew up a wheat farmer – how do I not know what this is??” Protein? Check. I know that. Test Weight? Check. Know that too. falling numbers was a big fat nope. While everyone else is participating in the discussion I am frantically googling falling numbers. I discovered that our wheat is always tested for falling numbers but because of our environment and weather conditions it is never (at the time – it has been an issue in our area since then) been an issue. Just a number on a piece of paper.

The next topic was the Farm Bill. We were in the middle of an insanely prolonged and complex renegotiation of the 2008 Farm Bill. Someone commented “the Senate Bill will be marked up in xx amount of time” and once again, I thought “what in god’s name does that mean?” I apparently needed to brush up on my School House Rocks but instead Mr. Google and I investigated what in meant to “mark up” a bill. This was two hours into my first meeting. I was blown away by the knowledge sitting in the room. Lola Raska, the Executive Vice President of the MGGA, has forgotten more farm policy than I will ever know as well as the other experienced farmers and leaders in the room.

Time Marches On 

Over the years I have certainly acquired knowledge on Farm Policy. None of it came without research and/or fact sheets, overviews, and a lot of leg work by state and national staff. I have also acquired many, many manila folders full of documents and my own fact sheets that I have written on various issues. My first Farm Bill round-table was with Max Baucus in Billings, MT. I made a point to sit right next to him, a lesson I learned during my high school sports days – no one will forget you if you are sitting right next to him, and had my list of talking points. Sitting next to me was Gordon Stoner (then Secretary of NAWG). He had his lists of requests and talking points for the organizations but the conversation quickly evolved into a discussion largely between Mr. Max and myself about young farmer programs. It was never my intention to dominate the round-table but it was a lesson in confidence that I will never forget. I will also never forget the feeling of sitting next to a sitting Senator for the first time. Gordon also likes to tell this story.

Several years later (less than 18 months ago) I was scheduled to participate in a young farmer panel at Senator Daines’ Montana Ag Summit. I received an email three days before and could not find my name on the young farmer panel, then I realized my name was on the “International Trade: Opportunities and Successes” panel. I called Alison (Senator Daines’ Montana ag staffer who put the event together) and asked if this was a mistake. She said “no, I needed someone on that panel and you are a good fit.” I calmly said “okay, that works” and hung up and panicked. I knew our talking points and that’s about it on trade. How was I supposed to talk about trade on a panel with industry leaders, in front of 1000 people, Senator Daines, Senator Pat Roberts, and Secretary Perdue?? In 3 days?? Are you kidding? After panic subsided I made a few phone calls – to Lola, Colin Waters at the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, and Josh and Molly at our national offices. 72 hours later I was buried in research, white papers, fact sheets, export data, and had successfully completed a crash course in agriculture trade.

This is how I started from scratch – or very limited knowledge – on agriculture policy. It has been a long and winding road but it is important to understand that when you see people engaged in policy, policy debates, or active leaders in organizations, we all started from zero. Maybe that zero was 50 years ago and they have acquired a lifetime of knowledge, forgetting more than many will ever know. Or maybe they are like me and have taken a crash course in a lot of issues and in many respects are still taking crash courses every day.

A little trial and error … a little confidence 

Would you believe me if I told you I was the high schooler than dreaded presentations for weeks? Would you believe me if I told you I was the same in college? When presentations appeared on the syllabus I dreaded them for months. Want me to write a 20 page paper?? Sure, I will start at 10PM and be done by 4AM the day before it is due. Want me to site 20 primary sources? Done. You want me to give a 10 minute presentation? Umm no thanks.

If you have followed me recently I am sure that is hard to believe. As recently as 2013 I dodged calls from a reporter, all he wanted was to know how a rain storm impacted us, but my dad had avoided reporters over the years if they called about various farm questions and I intended to do the same. It is almost laughable looking back on it.

I cannot tell you where I developed the confidence to speak publicly or with the media. Likely out of necessity. I do know that I participate in all of the media training I can possibly get and I force myself to listen to my own interviews in an attempt to perfect my technique. I seek out speaking engagements to perfect that skill as well. They are two things that you cannot do without practicing. I have been given the opportunity to testify on several occasions, at the state and national level. Guess what – THAT is still nerve-wracking. My voice still shakes if I am not hyper focused. It is an interesting phenomenon (although not uncommon) to be completely comfortable speaking for a room full of thousands of people but shaking when speaking to a group of 5-15 legislatures, agency representatives, and/or Congressional members in a formal hearing setting.

Over the years the people that I watched in awe in my first experiences with MGGA became mentors, friends, and continue to be inspirational leaders. I have also acquired many, many other mentors, friends, and a wide network of people who are valuable sources of information, far more experienced than myself, and who offer competing perspectives, encouragement, and inspire me daily. I have been inspired and awed by Congressional members, their staffs, our own staffs, career and appointed government officials, and so many others along the way. I continue to be grateful for their faith in my, their guidance, their friendship, and their leadership. They still inspire me everyday. 

Wrap it Up … 

I hope by telling my story, my zero to sixty crash course in agriculture policy provides some comfort if you are intimidated to enter the agriculture policy arena and/or attend conferences. Everyone starts at zero – we are just on our different paths, and we all end up “specializing’ in something. There are still, many, many policy areas that I am not informed in. I lean on my colleagues or our staff or the long list of leaders around the country that are far more experienced than I am. Want to know about rail issues? I will give you a few guys numbers. Want to know about property tax valuation? I know a lady. Want to know about the impacts of the new tax bill? I also know a guy.

I spent 3/4 of an National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) briefing just yesterday googling acronyms (pro tip – if you write a presentation try to avoid acronyms without a definition). So today, I know 17 more program names than I knew yesterday. All part of the journey. When you see a interview I do, when you hear me talk in person, when you reach out with questions – know that I am never ever judging your questions, there are truly no dumb questions. Know that not a single organization has a baseline for knowledge you must posses. Anyone who is willing to learn and contribute is a valuable asset to this community. Do not undervalue yourself just because you are not experienced. Give it time. Perhaps, like myself, you will find your passion and set your soul on fire.

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