RLND Class X in Washington D.C.

Diving into Perspectives: RLND Seminar 4: National Trends in Agriculture and Rural Issues

Authored on

Monday, March 18th

RLND Class X headed to Washington D.C. to learn about National Trends in Agriculture and Rural Issues in March. Class members boarded early morning flights from Bismarck, Fargo and Minot and met in Minneapolis Airport before boarding their final leg to DC. For some of the cohort, this was their first trip to D.C., while others had visited several times, and a few had lived in the D.C. area. After arriving in D.C., the group made their way to Residence Inn located conveniently near the National Mall. 

After checking in to the hotel and getting settled in their rooms, the class ventured to the Western Market Food Hall, by foot or metro, to get a bite to eat. The Food Hall had serval different food options for the class to choose from for dinner. With communal tables, it gave the class a chance to catch up and talk about the week ahead in D.C. 

After dinner, the group was picked up at the Food Hall by an Old Town Trolley for a moonlight tour of the city. Joined by Legislative Interns from Kelly Armstrong’s office, RLND Class X traveled through the city stopping at many monuments to get a closer look and a photo. Our tour guide drove us over to Arlington for a quick look before dropping us off at our hotel. It was a chilly night, but nothing North Dakotans couldn’t handle. 

Tuesday, March 19th

On March 19th, Class X, in conjunction with the Washington Ag Forestry Class 45, met with multiple staff members from USDA in the Department of Ag building in DC. Our first speaker was Toby Cain who is the Chief of Staff for the Risk Management Agency. Her office oversees RMA and FSA.

Next, we had the privilege of hearing from Gloria Greene of FPAC, who shared her inspiring journey as a first-generation high school and college graduate. She spoke about the contrasts between urban and rural life, emphasizing the benefits of agriculture and the crucial role it plays in combating climate change. Greene discussed FPAC's efforts to bridge climate smart programs for farmers and ranchers and change them to voluntary incentive-based work programs, alongside initiatives targeting food deserts and workforce development. She also highlighted her involvement with the National Association of Counties and its agricultural components in larger counties. She mentioned the adoption of programs to combat food deserts and workforce development, and the other programs she works with such as Farm to Food Bank and the public to private land relationship. Greene stressed the importance of maintaining open dialogue and understanding diverse perspectives, acknowledging that not everyone is thinking about agricultural issues daily. Moreover, she emphasized the need for patience and realistic expectations, recognizing that meaningful change takes time to bring results.

Dr. Basil Gooden, the Deputy Secretary of Rural Development, addressed the audience next. His office provides opportunities aimed at fostering leadership and realizing the vision of Rural Development. Dr. Gooden emphasized the importance of trusting established processes while advocating for diversified leadership to authentically represent the communities affected. He underscored the need build our communities from the ground up, prioritizing foundational aspects such as water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to bolster rural communities. Additionally, he stressed the significance of enhancing rural livability to incentivize young individuals to return to rural areas. Dr. Gooden highlighted the pivotal role of housing and rural healthcare, noting that effective leadership partnerships with municipalities and nonprofits are instrumental in reaching underserved communities.

Next in line was Hubert Homer from NASS, who shared insights as the presenter. He highlighted their substantial $4 billion budget supporting 8,000 employees and their yearly production of 450 agricultural reports. NASS oversees critical tasks like the Ag Census and NIFA, which channels grant funds to universities. Emphasizing the narrative woven through their reports, Homer underscored their primary goal: transforming research into actionable outcomes.

The class then broke into two different sessions. Some Class X members had the opportunity to attend a session on Fostering Growth: Collaborative Solutions in Rural Development. This session was facilitated by Bill Menner, the founder of the Bill Menner Group, Iowa Rural Development Council member, and Senior Advisor with the USDA Rural Development’s State Operations Office. Bill shared about his personal and professional background and how it drives his passion for rural communities. He discussed the Iowa Rural Development Council’s mission and focus. He also shared about Iowa’s Rural Summit, which is an annual event that brings leaders from Iowa’s rural communities together from across the state. He expressed the importance of rural communities bringing a team of people to the summit so they can come back to their communities to work on initiatives together. Bill brought a thoughtful, fun, and passionate approach to rural needs and solutions.

Other members of Class X attended the Fostering Growth Session: The Impact of Labor and Immigration in Rural America.  Robert Guenther, Founder Breakthrough 365 Government Relations Strategies moderated a panel with Jack Malde, Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center and Mark Lopez, Director of Race and Ethnicity Research at Pew Research Center. The presentations were very data driven, and we learned a lot of facts and stats about the current immigration problem at our southern border, and that what is portrayed in the media may not be accurately representing the entire issue.  Intriguing discussion was also held about the current U.S. population and work force shortage and how immigration may be more needed that we realize to solve these issues and how immigrants contribute to our country’s economy. The impact of H2A workers in agriculture, family farms and rural America was also discussed.  Those attending these presentations could have stayed for hours more learning!

After a class photo at the Grant Statue, the class headed to a panel on the Future of Energy in North Dakota with Ryan Bertstein, Senior Vice President in the Federal Public Affairs Group at McGuireWoods Consulting and Shawn Affolter, Vice President of Government Relations at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions who discussed the role of federal policy making and advocacy in energy production. They reminded us that rural communities play a crucial role nationally, and local support is essential for policy implementation, and that transparency and focus on common goals are essential when working with tribal communities on energy-related programs. They expressed that federal level discussions on the future of renewable energy are lacking, and state initiatives should push for representation in the national discourse. Energy discussions are complex due to differing perspectives, but innovation is key to addressing issues. They encouraged leaders to seek inspiration from others, understand the costs of involvement, seek advice, find their passion, and actively participate.

Later that evening, the RLND class split into pairs and they each met with a pair of participants from the Washington Ag Forestry Class 45 at different restaurants throughout the city. This provided an opportunity for the RLND cohort and the Washington cohort to talk about their experience in their programs and share what they have learned. This was a great way to further develop networks and connect.

Wednesday, March 20th

On Wednesday morning, RLND Class X met the Washington Ag Forestry Class 45 at the Government Accountability Office. Once through security, we were greeted by employees of the Pentagon that had come over to help guide our groups through the winding hallways of the GOA building. The classes listened to speakers Tambour L. Eller Chief, Interagency and International Services Division Headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jaime Pinkham, Principal Deputy Secretary of Army for Civil Works, and Robyn Colomiso, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Project and Planning Review. The group was able to hear about their career journeys, their leadership experience and got a first-hand perspective of National Government in action.

On March 20th, Class X visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. While many had been before, each visit offers new insights. Following the tour, we were privileged to receive a debrief from Dr. Sam Aronson, Associate Dean at Georgetown University, alongside the Washington State Ag Forestry Class 45. Dr. Aronson shared intriguing details, such as the preservation challenges faced with artifacts like the pile of shoes from concentration camps. These shoes were not out for display as textiles can be hard to preserve and the way they were preserved when they were first collected was actually harmful to the shoes and was breaking them down at a faster rate. Engaging in an exercise to define responsibility during the Holocaust prompted profound reflections on leadership roles and ethical decision-making among our group. Dr. Aronson's discussion sparked meaningful introspection about our own leadership responsibilities and choices.

Thursday, March 21st

Class X’s Meeting with Congressman Kelly Armstrong provided a platform to discuss various economic, housing, and policy issues affecting North Dakota. Topics ranged from workforce challenges to the Farm Bill and the importance of coalition-building for effective governance. His advice on leadership emphasized connecting with local change-makers and focusing on present tasks while maintaining personal integrity. The discussion also touched on Congressman Armstrong's decision to run for Governor, driven by a desire to address state-level challenges alongside like-minded problem-solvers.

After a tour of the U.S. Capitol with Congressman Armstrong’s staff, Class X headed to Senator Kevin Cramer's office.  His legislative aides highlighted their role in tracking legislation and emphasized the importance of backing up arguments with data. Senator Cramer's accessibility through avenues like letters and his radio show was noted, alongside praise for his integrity in leadership.

In Senator John Hoeven's office, staff detailed their work on rural-focused bills such as the Farm Bill and appropriations. Discussions covered critical issues like rural healthcare funding and conservation efforts. While Senator Hoeven expressed frustration with certain aspects of current legislation and echoed shared concerns about the vitality of small family farms, he stressed the importance of leadership programs like RLND for cultivating future leaders.

On our fourth evening in Washington D.C., Class X had a wonderful meal at Founding Farmers Fishers & Bakers, a local restaurant led by restauranteurs, Michael Vucurevich and Dan Simons, in partnership with Mark Watne, farmer and President of North Dakota Farmers Union, and the more than 50,000 family farmers who majority own their restaurants. Class X had the opportunity to hear from manager Kendra Graves to learn more about the restaurant and its background. The class tried a variety of appetizers, main courses, desserts, and homemade chocolates. North Dakota Farmers Union generously provided gift cards for the dinner to Class X. 

Friday, March 22nd

RLND Class X embarked early on a journey to Gettysburg, PA , where they engaged in a multifaceted exploration encompassing history, reflection, and community connection. Their visit commenced with an immersive museum and film experience of the Battle of Gettysburg and the broader Civil War context so class members gained deeper insights into the pivotal moments that shaped American history.

The Battlefield tour offered a journey through hallowed grounds, where RLND members walked in the footsteps of soldiers and witnessed firsthand the landscapes filled with the echoes of conflict. Guided by an expert historian, they absorbed the significance of strategic maneuvers, heroic sacrifices, and the enduring legacy of courage and resilience. Class X ventured to FourScore Brewing, a local brewery for lunch before heading back to DC.

Friday’s group dinner at Trattoria Alberto consisted of a wonderful Italian meal in a private room and of great conversation with Robert Guenther, Founder Breakthrough 365 Government Relations Strategies, Murray Miller, Legislative Director for Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-AR), and Julie Peebles, Director of Agriculture and Sustainability Policy for Ducks Unlimited.  Class X experienced the perspective of government influencers as they asked questions of their experiences and interactions with lawmakers.  Our guests’ passion for government, policy, and strategic connections was evident as they shared their wins on Capitol Hill even in today’s political climate. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

On Saturday, Class X bid farewell to Washington DC, returning home with a wealth of knowledge and unforgettable experiences. The exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences during the Washington D.C. seminar underscores the importance of adaptable leadership approaches in navigating complex issues and fostering meaningful collaboration with our federal partners.

Rural Leadership North Dakota relies heavily on the generous support of our sponsors, without whom our programs would not be possible. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to our Seminar 4 sponsors: ND Farmers Union, RLND Leader Corp Member; Bank of North Dakota, RLND Leader Corp Member; Ducks Unlimited, RLND Leader Corp Member; Verendrye Electric; AGT Foods; Erica Johnsrud, RLND Class VII; SRT; Matt Danuser, RLND Class V.