The Senate Ag Staff: Behind the scenes in support of agriculture and rural communities

By Copeland Vidal, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

 Have you ever wondered how the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee carry out their mandate to guide and shape agricultural policies that maintain the welfare of farmers, ranchers, and consumers? This crucial task is facilitated by dedicated staff who are passionate about ensuring Committee members are thoroughly informed and briefed on the intricate technical insight that drives these policies. Being backed up by a team of expert staff allows the Senate Agriculture Committee to efficiently and successfully evaluate legislation related to farming, nutrition, conservation, rural development, and forestry.

The team of staff on the Senate Agriculture Committee is comprised of qualified individuals with diverse backgrounds who are responsible for researching issues, developing legislation, analyzing government programs and laws, and supervising agency activities. Aside from experienced staff, the Committee also works with a team of legislative assistants who represent the interests of the individual senators, particularly members of the Committee, on specific agriculture and rural development policy issues. 

The role of Senate Ag staff is of paramount importance in shaping policies and regulations that impact food producers nationwide. For example, the staff are currently in the process of contributing to the preparation of the Senate version of the farm bill. This recurring reauthorization process, taking place approximately every five years, encompasses a myriad of food and farm programs. During this process, Senate Ag staff assist the Committee in identifying and prioritizing issues that can yield positive outcomes for struggling families through nutrition assistance and rural development programs and for the broader realm of American agriculture through farm loans, crop insurance, marketing, exports, and conservation programs. The staff examines perspectives of various food system stakeholders, weaving them into the broader policy context to help ensure everyone has representation in the farm bill. 

In May of 2023, the ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate cohort had the honor to sit with three astounding Senate Ag staff members: Eyang Garrison, who recently was named Majority Staff Director; Mikayla Bodey, Senior Professional Staff; and Chris Neubert, Professional Staff and Budget Analyst. These individuals emphasized the importance of their daily tasks in formulating sound agricultural policies to improve and sustain the lives of farmers, ranchers, and consumers. They explained that they work closely with their House counterparts to draft the annual budget for Congress. They also function efficiently with the input of specific subject matter experts on current issues affecting the agriculture sector. They monitor ongoing agricultural activities, develop policy solutions to these issues, and make recommendations to the Senate Agriculture Committee. Some staff members utilize the relationships built in previous positions to help build coalitions of support for the Committee’s work.

As I listened to their stories, I felt their passion exude throughout the room as they each spoke with pride of the staff's contribution to the welfare of food producers. I could not help but wonder how many of us stop to think of the unsung heroes behind the policies that keep food on our plates. These individuals are not just pushing papers or performing mundane tasks. Instead, they are motivated and driven by a sense of duty to help their communities, positively impact society, and improve the lives of those working in food and agriculture. Working as a Committee staff member sounds exciting and rewarding, contrary to the common stereotype that the roles of government employees are monotonous and rigid. When observing these individuals, I realized that was far from the truth.

Like all jobs, Garrison, Bodey, and Neubert stated that there are challenges to overcome. However, despite facing obstacles, they remain focused on their mission to help struggling farmers through research and solutions. They urged my graduate cohort not to shy away from working with the government as it gives a sense of pride to serve. On this day, I gained a profound understanding of how essential the staff’s contribution is in connecting agricultural policy with the everyday lives of farmers and ranchers. This gave me a newfound appreciation for the dedication and hard work of the Senate Agriculture Committee staff. Despite their numerous obstacles, they remain steadfast in pursuing policies for a better world. 

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.