WILMINGTON — Fewer than two percent of Americans are responsible for growing the nation’s food — and that number is shrinking. This means those in agriculture must be front and center in contributing to the country’s farm policy.
Wilmington College (WC) in Clinton County is providing its agriculture students with tools to accomplish this feat by facilitating their ability to lobby elected officials.
WC’s Spring Lobby Weekend in Washington, D.C. — long a signature hands-on learning activity — has expanded to feature agriculture-focused, lobbying instruction and experiences each fall in the nation’s capital.
Dr. Monte Anderson, professor of agriculture, said the lobby trips directly address the college’s core value of civic engagement, as well as its hallmark for hands-on learning.
“The past three years, the agriculture students have taken seven trips to Washington to learn and advocate for issues that impact food security, production and safety,” he said.
“The faculty members who accompany them are always amazed how the students truly start to learn and understand the issues and are then able to articulate their points of view, as well as appreciate the other side of the issue,” Anderson added. “These trips reinforce the value of hands on learning and living.”
Dr. Corey Cockerill, associate professor of communication arts and agriculture, explained why the college places a premium on providing its agriculture students with this distinct opportunity.
“The lobby experience is really about helping students find their voice,” she said, noting that ag students already understand issues at the farm level more intimately than the other 98 percent. “Helping students understand how to bring forward those issues and experiences into public and political realms is a priority of ours as faculty.”
Cockerill said WC’s agriculture students are used to the college’s learning-by-doing philosophy through activities at the College Farm, in labs and other outside-the-classroom experiences. Therefore, traveling to Washington to lobby has become a much-anticipated component of their education.
“Ag students are hands-on by nature and necessity,” she said. “This experience teaches them how to be hands-on advocates — what we call ‘ag-vocates’ — for a stable food system now and into the future.”
The students learn from insiders about an agricultural issue followed by intensive sessions on how to lobby from the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) expert staff. Some even prepare for the excursion by taking an optional practicum course in agricultural policy.
Last fall, 51 agriculture students in two groups went to Washington. First, new students made the trip in which they lobbied on the Farm Bill facing Congress, followed several weeks later by a cadre of lobbying veterans for advanced sessions highlighting trade while meeting with FCNL and staff and stakeholders at various embassies.
One of those veterans from a previous trip was Sara Pope, a sophomore from Sunman, Ind., majoring in agricultural policy and education. Her trip as a freshman in the fall of 2016 was literally life changing.
“My interest in the policy side of agriculture came out from that lobby trip,” she said, noting that it prompted her to change her major to include ag-policy, which features an approved curriculum unique to her interests.
“I want to be an agriculture teacher but I also want to have that background in ag-policy,” she added. “I loved lobbying and being in Washington, D.C. I felt like I made a difference and could continue to make an impact. The experience helped me find my voice and get me out of my comfort zone.”
A highlight of that experience was lobbying her Congressman, Rep. Luke Messer (R-6th District), with whom she discussed the 2016 lobbying topic of pollinators in the habitat. Following their meeting, she had the opportunity to view the House of Representatives in action debating a bill on the floor of the U.S. Capitol.
“We sat in Congress watching the process unfold,” she recalled. “Being there was fascinating. I realized, ‘Wow, I want to have an impact in the future.’ There are so many hot topics in agriculture like the Farm Bill. It’s important to share your views, feelings and hopes with your elected representatives.”
That immersion into politics a month into her freshman year led to Pope returning to Washington D.C. in March for WC’s annual Spring Lobby Trip. With that experience under her belt, she took on the responsibility of being a student leader on the 2017 fall trips for agriculture students. She worked with the college, the Ohio Farm Bureau and FCNL in handling the numerous logistics required for several dozen students to have the fulfilling experience she enjoyed.
“It was fun to see all the planning and organizing we did unfold over those three-day trips — it was stressful but a lot of fun. I slept really well when it was over.”
Another factor in her sleeping well upon returning to the college might have been the nearly 25 miles she walked over those three days not only on lobbying business, but also visiting the monuments, memorials and museums.
“Sometimes those three days feel like a marathon, but I’m hooked on Washington D.C., and on lobbying after being there four times in the last year,” she said.
Pope noted how one of WC’s trip leaders told students that Washington was built to intimidate them with its grandiose buildings, impressive monuments and “important people” scurrying around in doing the nation’s business.
“At first I thought, ‘Why would my Congressman want to talk to me?’ Now I’m aware that they want to talk to their constituents and get to know what’s important to them. Lobbying should be important to everybody.”
Pope relishes the experiences she’s already gained not even halfway through her sophomore year: a growing interest in agriculture policy that prompted her to change majors, her expanding sphere of interests, leading two trips and her newfound ability to confidently navigate both Washington, D.C. and the halls of Congress.
“All because of three days my first semester at Wilmington College.”