Students to work with Legislature on environment, agriculture policy

CFANS students will get involved in state policy through a new program.

by Hailey Colwell

Andrew Morrison spent his first three years at the University of Minnesota in a lab doing environmental research.

But this semester, the environmental science senior could be one of a dozen students from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences to get an inside look at the legislative process, learning how to better advocate for agricultural and environmental topics.

“I don’t have any experience with policy or government,” Morrison said. “I’m more of a hard-science, research-type person, so I’m really excited to do this.”

The new initiative — the CFANS Policy Engagement Program — is an effort of three University alumni currently working in state government. Students will attend meetings over the course of the semester, including a day at the state Capitol to talk with policymakers about agricultural and environmental bills.

“Some portions of advocacy can be a
little intimidating,” said Leah Peterson, CFANS alumna and law clerk for the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Peterson and two other alumni drafted the program because they wanted to use their ties to the Legislature to give back to students from their alma mater, she said.

“We wanted to give them the tools to be advocates on their own,” Peterson said.

During each of the four to five meetings, students in the program will discuss different aspects of policy, focusing on topics in agriculture, natural resources and the environment. The students will identify bills they are interested in and track them through the legislative session.

When the students visit the Capitol, they’ll meet with the chairs of agricultural, environmental and energy committees. They’ll speak with the authors of the bills they’ve chosen to follow and possibly testify for the bills’ legislative committees, Peterson said.

Students will also learn about the role of lobbyists for agricultural and environmental issues, she added.

As a high school student, CFANS junior Kirsten Pagel was involved in a lot of public advocacy student groups. Being in leadership positions for these organizations helped her realize the importance of civic engagement, she said.

“It’s been something that’s really interested me and that I think I could have a future in.”

Pagel said she applied to the program because she’s interested in promoting topics in the agricultural industry, particularly world hunger issues.

“I think it’s really important for agriculture to constantly remain progressive in order to reach the goals of ending nutrition deficiency and world hunger around the globe,” she said.

If accepted to the program, Pagel said she would speak with legislators about the students’ view on agricultural policy.

“It’s important that we share our story with legislators.”

Filling the ‘void’

Though college students have had opportunities to intern for the Legislature, there’s often a “void” in student involvement in agricultural law, said Matt Wohlman, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and University alumnus.

“When it comes to agriculture, natural resources and environmental policy, there’s not a program or group that is helping university students to see this policy arena,” Wohlman said.

He said he hopes the CFANS Policy Engagement Program will change this.

“What we wanted to do was focus on this small but very important part of our policy arena and help students gain an appreciation for that,” Wohlman said.

Morrison said he applied to the program because he wants to learn more about the political side of the field.

“To be the best environmental scientist, you need to understand the social, economic and environmental aspects of all of it.”

Recent University graduate Emily Nachtigal, who serves as legislative assistant to House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, said students have a lot to bring to the table on environmental issues because they may study them more constantly than legislators.

“Politicians are regular people,” Nachtigal said. “They’re by no means experts, and they do rely on their constituents and other people with background knowledge to prepare them.”

She said she hopes the program will help students understand their ability to influence public policy.

“I don’t think they realize how much knowledge and how much power they can carry.”