Riley Pagett

Promoting Agriculture On Capital Hill

Riley Pagett’s position has been newly created with the signing in of the 2018 Farm Bill. Formerly working for the National FFA office, Riley is now the Chief of Staff for the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement for the United States Department of Agriculture on Capitol Hill. Covering a broad spectrum of topics, Riley shares how law school, always saying “yes,” and working hard has allowed him to find success in promoting and sharing the story of agriculture to a group of individuals that may not understand the agricultural world that we live in. 

What does the USDA do? 

“You would be shocked to see the kind of … programs in this building and across the nation,” says Riley about the broad spectrum that the United States Department of Agriculture covers. Most counties across the United States have an office or facility, part of what Abraham Lincoln called the “people’s department” when he created the USDA during his tenure. 

Even in the mid-1800’s, leaders were already having worries about feeding future generations and these were the reasons why Lincoln formed the USDA. It has obviously become more than just that as they now rule development, foreign agriculture services, engagement with other countries when dealing with agricultural commodities, and massaging partnerships between food and agriculture. 

The Farm Bill’s Impacts

In August of 2018, the most recent Farm Bill was signed into authorization and the USDA’s job is to implement that bill. While Riley didn’t write on the fourteenth Farm Bill, he was able to be a part of it in administrative form and has been able to use the information that he learned in that process to better serve his current role. 

The Journey to Capitol Hill

College

Raised on a cow-calf operation in the panhandle of Oklahoma, Riley attended Oklahoma State University where he received a degree in agricultural communications. When he graduated in December, he applied to law school in Oklahoma for that August but was unsure what to do in the six months of down time. He picked up work in a law office in Stillwater who then mentioned that they “might need some help writing the Farm Bill.” 

Without thinking twice, he jumped on a plane for Washington, D.C. in January of 2013 with the intentions of being there for six months to work on the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill had other plans, though, taking an additional year and a half to be written and authorized. 

Still interested in law school, Riley went part time to American University and graduated with a law degree in December of 2016. 

“[You’re] not required to have a law degree or masters,” says Riley. “… My selfish advice is to find an employer that will help pay for that continued education – find yourself something that you love to do. IF you need an MBA – then do it! BUT you might not [need it] to be honest.” 

Employers Assisting with Financial Costs of Further Education

More and more employers can be found footing the bill for further education. The high cost of education, student loans, etc. can take a long time to pay off and employers understand the investment value in working with a potential employee. 

Washington, D.C is a big area with lots of opportunities for those willing to take it. There is also a lot of different individuals from the 4H, FFA, and college agriculture worlds that are all convening in Washington, D.C., for a variety of different projects, bills, legislative reasons and more. 

“Everyone here has an opinion on something and everyone here wants to change the world.” 

Law Background

“I never regret going to law school – the relationships I build there, the skill sets, knowledge, etc.,” says Riley before adding, with a laugh, “[but] I would never do it again. You could not pay me enough to go back but I appreciate it a lot.” 

A rewarding experience, nevertheless, he’s also found that it’s been helpful for his job in helping understand the need to communicate the ag story and listening to those who don’t know or disagree. It also has helped him analyze what they are required to do for his job and what they are statutorily required to do in telling the ag story and connecting people with resources. 

Tips Learned: 

  • Be passionate about public service
  • Answer the phone
  • Leave work late
  • Be fully present 

“The education won’t hurt, but it’s really what you build on top of it that will apply.” 

Being the Minority

Agriculture is the minority on Capitol Hill and with that comes great responsibilities for those working in agriculture and food. With very few individuals in Congress coming from that background, it’s a great opportunity to educate. 

“I overheard one time, while getting coffee, this kid saying that his portfolio is ag because he owns a Carhartt jacket,” says Riley with a laugh about the disconnect from agriculture. “If we think our job is done, we are crazy! There are people on the hill that are good, solid people that don’t know what we know about ag.” 

These misunderstandings are just in Washington, D.C., they are also at home in every community. Making sure that you are constantly educating and advocating for agriculture is extremely important. 

What do more people need to understand about the ag community?

  1. Farmers are the greatest stewards of the land.
  2. If we are here to just make “big money” than we would be doing something different. 
  3. Farmers care about safe and abundant food supply.

What can farmers do to help the non-ag community understand the ag community? 

“I think the best way to [communicate] that is to communicate with folks over a meal and inviting them into our homes,” says Riley. Discussing in a way that takes a small step in the form of advocacy is important. 

If you invite someone into your home to join you and learn, you also have to be prepared to listen. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you, doesn’t mean that you can get up in arms. We are all different and having someone different at your table is a way for both of you to share what you sincerely believe in. 

You can connect with Riley through email (riley.w.pagett@gmail.com) or Twitter. Make sure to subscribe to the AgGrad YouTube Channel to learn more about career opportunities in agriculture and follow along on the special “30 Under 30 in Agriculture” series!

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Katie Schrock
katie.schrock@thatwesternlife.com
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