Houston Chronicle

Farm policy’s front line

A&M intern on Capitol Hill will learn the power of trade and agricultur­e as politics heat up over the issues

- By Lynn Brezosky

FOR Texas A&M University senior Kate Wright, the path to a career in agricultur­al economics is starting with a summer internship at the center of it all: Capitol Hill.

That’s where details of the next five-year farm bill and internatio­nal trade policy are being hammered out on topics ranging from food stamps, immigrant work visas and farm subsidies to food labeling and regulation­s on fertilizer­s and pesticides — and for a constituen­cy that may not agree about what should be done.

As a suburban girl who cultivated a fascinatio­n with futures markets and planting decisions as a member of FFA in Helotes, she’d be hardpresse­d to find a headier post: working for the House Agricultur­e Committee, led by fellow Texan Mike Conaway.

“I’ve really just been soaking in what each day brings,” Wright said of her first days being surrounded by Washington, D.C., the power players.

Wright is one of 11 A&M interns chosen for this summer’s Agricultur­al and Natural Resources Policy internship program, which places agricultur­al students with Texas congressio­nal members and national lobbying organizati­ons such as the National Associatio­n of Wheat Growers and the National Turkey Federation.

The program sends A&M students to Washington each semester.

“Students chosen to participat­e in the ANRP internship in D.C. have a unique opportunit­y to stand on the sidelines of history, while also

helping shape the direction of agricultur­e policy in our country,” Conaway , R-Midland, said in an email.

“I feel like some students don’t have that kind of background, so they don’t get to learn just how special agricultur­e is,” Wright said. “For me, it’s a very interestin­g, very powerful, very impactful career path, as well as it is a way of life.”

It’s a highly competitiv­e program in an industry drawing fewer and fewer students even as more and more agricultur­al career paths open up worldwide. According to AgCareers.com’s Enrollment and Employment Outlook Survey, fewer than 1 percent of students are in an agricultur­al major. In 2013, there were more than 56,000 career openings in the industry but only 29,000 graduates.

A good portion of those jobs are in Washington, where rural district U.S. representa­tives and lobbyists for commoditie­s such as cotton and beef come up against those fighting against them in areas such as farm supports and geneticall­y modified feed. Recent battles have been on the trade front.

Farmers and ranchers are wary of tariffs that while favorable to some manufactur­ers may prove to be devastatin­g to those who depend upon agricultur­al exports.

For example, the punitive tariffs that Mexico levied on pork recently are already causing losses for a $20 billion annual industry.

Mexico is U.S. pork’s largest export market, accounting for nearly a quarter of all shipments. With some 60,000 producers centered mostly in Midwestern states, Oklahoma and North Carolina, Mexico’s trade experts know that the counterpun­ch for tariffs on aluminum and steel will hit a big part of President Donald Trump’s voting base.

The tariff battles come amid off-again, on-again fears that negotiatio­ns for an updated North American Free Trade Agreement will fall apart, ending the duty-free status that has made Mexico and Canada robust buyers.

The National Associatio­n of Wheat Growers, which has taken an ANRP intern each semester for a good part of the program’s 28-year history, represents another commodity group that has been nervous about recent trade moves.

“China is looking at imposing a 25 percent tariff on wheat, and so that is very concerning to us,” said Chandler Goule, who completed an ANRP internship some 20 years ago with the wheat group, is now its CEO.

China and Mexico are among the top importers of U.S. wheat, and Goule isn’t counting on his growers to get a pass. As of Friday, the commodity appeared to have been spared from retaliator­y tariffs from NAFTA partners, but growers were continuing to anxiously watch developmen­ts.

Back in 1998, Goule thought it would be fun to spend a semester in Washington and learn a little bit about how things worked.

“Honestly, leaving Texas was not even on my agenda. I was going to be a large-animal veterinari­an like every other animal science major,” he said.

During his internship, his eyes were opened to all the federal regulation­s that affected farmers and ranchers. What to him had been dull visits with his dad to fill out paperwork at the Natural Resource Conservati­on Service and what is now the Farm Service Agency became policy that could be affected by voices such as his.

He returned to Texas for his final semester and after graduation immediatel­y went back north.

While searching for his firsttime job, he lived off Holiday Inn points he’d accumulate­d thanks to an internship with Syngenta, then found a boarding house. But he’d learned his way around during his internship and had honed his speaking skills through Four-H Club competitio­ns, so it didn’t take long to get that first job.

“I didn’t know that you could come to Washington and take two of my favorite things — talking and agricultur­e — and turn it into a career,” he said.

The ANRP program started in 1990 with a request from thenU.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin. The A&M graduate had called his alma mater looking for an agricultur­al economics student who could help him and his staff. It grew from there and now is supported by a list of individual and organizati­onal donors such as the Plains Cotton Growers, Farm Credit Bank of Texas and Texas Farm Bureau.

The internship pays for the students’ apartments and tries to prepare them for life in D.C., from offering tips for shopping on a budget to lending profession­al clothing from an A&M “career closet.”

Program director Stephanie McMillen came through the program herself, going from living in a horse trailer near campus to the urban bustle of Washington.

Though she grew up in a Republican home, she was matched with a Rio Grande Valley Democrat.

“My mom was totally excited but totally worried, you know, that I was going to be, like, indoctrina­ted into the other party and it was going to be the end of the world,” she said.

“But it was great to see another point of view from what I had been hearing growing up and to see that it’s not necessaril­y black or white, that it was a gray.”

lbrezosky@express-news.net twitter.com/lbrezosky

 ?? Courtesy photo ?? Texas A&M senior Kate Wright is working with House Agricultur­e Committee Chairman Mike Conaway as part of the university’s Agricultur­al and Natural Resources Policy internship program in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy photo Texas A&M senior Kate Wright is working with House Agricultur­e Committee Chairman Mike Conaway as part of the university’s Agricultur­al and Natural Resources Policy internship program in Washington, D.C.

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