For the second year in a row, the American Soybean Association and Valent U.S.A. sponsored the Ag Voices of the Future program, which aims to educate college-age students about agricultural policy and legislation that directly impacts soybean farmers. Sarah Lehner from Delaware, Ohio, and Courtney Heiser from Attica, Ohio, were members of the 10-person group that visited Washington, D.C. July 9-12. The trip coincided with the ASA Board Meeting and Soy Issues Briefing.
The Ag Voices of the Future program was created in 2017 to introduce young people with a connection to agriculture to the world of major policy issues and advocacy. The program also encourages young people to consider careers within agriculture associations and industry, as well as government regulatory and legislative positions.
During the trip, students met with staff from USDA and EPA, visited Capitol Hill with their state soybean associations and met with a senior staff member for the Senate Ag Committee and leaders from other national organizations. Topics of discussion included tariffs, NAFTA and the 2018 Farm Bill. The week concluded with communications training session on modern agriculture at the CropLife America office.
Courtney Heiser comes from a family that raises soybeans, corn and wheat in Seneca County. She was heavily involved in FFA in high school, and is currently working toward an American Degree, the highest degree within the organization. Heiser will study agricultural communications at The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute beginning this fall.
Sarah Lehner grew up on her family’s Delaware County farm that raises about 900 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat and hay. She also grew soybeans in high school on 20 acres of leased land from the Buckeye Valley FFA School Farm. Lehner will be a freshman at The Ohio State University in the fall, studying agribusiness and animal sciences.
“For me, the highlight of the program was interacting with members from my state association during our visits to Capitol Hill,” Heiser said. “I enjoyed seeing the passion they have for agriculture and enjoyed learning from them.”
These trips to Capitol Hill allowed both Lehner and Heiser to see the need for agricultural advocacy. “The most important thing that I learned is that many of the people in Washington, D.C., passing laws and making policies that impact agriculture have little-to-no firsthand experience in the industry,” Lehner explained. “For this reason, it’s crucial that we advocate for our livelihoods and do everything we can to ensure that they fully understand the impacts of their actions on agriculture.”
“I also realized that farmers do not have time to advocate for themselves in Washington, D.C., so that is why we need passionate and educated individuals, like those who serve on the Ohio Soybean Association board to travel to Washington and educate our elected officials about the issues most important to our industry,” Heiser explained. She urges other young agriculturalists to get involved and “ag-vocate” every way they can.
The need for agricultural knowledge in government is more important than ever — more than half of the U.S. population lives in one of the nation’s largest 39 cities. Only one of 435 districts in the U.S. House of Representatives is comprised of a rural population greater than 75 percent, according to an analysis of recent U.S. Census data, correlated with the 2012 Census of Agriculture. That means many people who work for Congressional staffs, regulatory agencies and services groups don’t come from an agricultural background and have limited knowledge of the needs of farmers.
“More and more, regulations that impact the ag industry are being directed by legislative and regulatory leadership many generations removed from the farm,” said Jeffrey Smith, industry affairs manager for Valent. “We believe the best way to ensure sound regulation is to encourage more young leaders with a practical understanding of ag production to consider careers based in Washington, D.C.”
ASA President John Heisdorffer, from Keota, Iowa, agreed. “It’s important that young people have an understanding of the policy issues that directly impact the productivity and economic well-being of our farms and the soybean industry,” he said.
Before the program, both young women had little understanding of how they could impact agricultural policy, but now both understand how to advocate for the farming industry. OSA board member Bret Davis was present at the Capitol Hill visits with Lehner and Heiser. He explained that programs like Ag Voices of the Future help show the next generation the other side of farming. “It makes them understand that your voice is heard — and what a difference it can make,” Davis explained. “When farmers show up in Washington, politicians get a better understanding of our needs. They get that we matter and we vote.”
Lehner hopes to carry the things she learned through Ag Voices of the Future throughout her career, playing a more active role in our government by talking to her representatives about issues facing the agricultural industry.
For Heiser, Ag Voices of the Future opened her eyes to potential career paths. “I have yet to declare a minor and I am highly considering political science,” she said. “If I don’t end up working directly for the government, I would like to stay involved with OSA and use my knowledge and passion for ag to continue to advocate and lobby for our farmers in Washington and here at home.”
The trip wasn’t all work, however. The group also took part in a guided tour of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, as well as a tour of the U.S. Capitol led by Congressman Rodney Davis from Illinois.
“I would like to thank everyone at the Ohio Soybean Association for allowing me to participate in the Hill visits,” Lehner said. “This experience really brought policy to life for me and gave me a whole new perspective on both government and agriculture.”
For more information on the Ag Voices of the Future program, visit www.soygrowers.com/learn/ag-voices-of-the-future.