From Plains to Policy

Picture of the U.S. Capitol Building

Seat belts are fastened, and tray tables are in their upright position, the landing is approaching. Out of the window, one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the nation sits below. The plane touches down in what seems like the middle of a cotton field. Stepping outside, a rush takes over—this is home. However, visions of the U.S. Capitol Building, the reflecting pool and cherry blossoms still linger. 

This is a familiar feeling for Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., Chief Executive Officer Kody Bessent.  

Bessent, a West Texas native and third-generation farmer, reflects on policy makers, producers, and even interns, coming together to ensure the future of agriculture in West Texas. The work of early pioneers, like his grandfather who moved to the region in the early 1900s, shaped the South Plains into what it is today. 

“There’s a lot to be said, for that generation, of how they operated, and then they were kind of the pioneers of what we have today,” Bessent said. “They saw a different light than what we experience, and they saw the need for investment in better varieties of cotton, better equipment, and better technology.”

Agriculture is an ever-evolving industry, and Texas Tech University and the West Texas region have and continue to play an integral part of that evolution. 

Commodity Central

Groups like Plains Cotton Growers have dedicated their interest to supporting the producers of the High Plains region at the state and federal levels. While elaborating on the formation of PCG in 1956, Bessent said there was need for the organization at the time.

“Producers obviously felt like they needed a voice and needed a collective based entity to be able to provide a unified voice on policy,” Bessent said. 

Since their founding, PCG has expanded their portfolio to include research and development for new cotton varieties and market development for producers in the region. 

National Sorghum Producers, another Lubbock-based commodity organization, has been supporting West Texas agriculture for many years. NSP Chief Executive Officer Tim Lust commented on the work of these industry groups. While they represent different commodities, they work hand-in-hand to promote the livelihood of producers in the region.

“West Texas agriculture has always been very unified,” Lust said. “While there are certainly differences between cotton, corn, and sorghum from a big picture standpoint, understanding the members we represent, and the farmers’ livelihoods that depend upon it, West Texas has always done a really good job of being united.”

During his 25-year tenure at NSP, Lust has had the opportunity to work with many young minds. NSP has had upwards of 55 student interns, working in their marketing, policy, communication, and industry relations divisions. Lust said he hopes the experiences he can provide at NSP prepare students for the real world.

“There are things you won’t learn in the classroom, and you only learn in a business environment,” Lust said. “I think from a student standpoint, we can provide value there. Hopefully, the vast majority of those learning experiences are very positive. But even if they’re not, that’s part of real life, and that’s part of the real world.”

While internships provide learning experiences for students outside the classroom, Lust says they can also provide unique opportunities for businesses. The relationships between student interns and organizations are two-fold, citing communications as an example.

“If you’re not up on the most current technology platforms and how technology is being used in communications, you have some real challenges,” Lust said. “The ability to have those new interns coming in that have the training, the latest technologies, and the latest tools is very exciting, and I think helps keep an organization fresh.”

Education Outside The Classroom

Internships have become a cornerstone for students across the state and country. In the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech, students are encouraged to participate in internship programs.

In 1998, the Davis College founded their Government Internship Program. Since its inception, over 100 students have traveled to Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, according to its website. Students have worked for U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, state representatives, state senators, and industry groups.

Students participating in the Davis College Government Internship Program receive a scholarship and academic credit for their experience. The program began with donations from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Texas Corn Producers and has continued from a multitude of donations from groups and individuals like Plains Cotton Growers, who established an endowment fund in 2000.

“The board and the executive committee really saw a need to invest in the next generation of workforce,” Bessent said. “They could be placed into offices, and we would have good advocates from this region, good advocates that came out of Texas Tech, continue to foster and build a collective team on advocacy.”

Many students that complete a government internship stay in Washington, D.C., like recent Davis College agricultural communications graduate Emily Matthews. Matthews completed an internship with U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson in the fall of 2022 and decided to pursue a career on Capitol Hill. 

“My experiences as an intern really showed me, you can cause a change wherever you are,” Matthews said. “For the greater good of something, whatever you’re passionate about, whether it be agriculture, or just the greater United States.”

Since her first visit to Texas Tech University and the Davis College, Matthews said she knew completing a government internship was something she aspired to.

“I first toured Texas Tech back in the summer of 2018, right before my senior year of high school,” Matthews said. “I remember Shelbey Havens told me about the congressional internship, and I thought, ‘oh my gosh,’ that sounds like something I want to do.”

Some students find the government internship program later in their academic career and decide to participate as a challenge to themselves. Texas Tech agricultural communications master’s student Kylie Harlan wanted something to broaden her horizons.

“I was looking for something to push me out of my comfort zone and challenge me a bit,” Harlan said. “I enjoyed all of my ag comm coursework, and I had a public relations minor, but I had wanted to get into political science.”

Harlan completed her internship with then-U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady during her final semester of her bachelor’s degree. She then decided to return to Texas Tech and the Davis College to pursue her master’s degree. Harlan said she is currently looking for roles that allow her to remain in policy, but more in an advocacy stance.

“I want to stay in agriculture, and I hope being in a communications position will allow me to do some of the advocacy,” Harlan said. “I would love to work with organizations that do fly-ins and actually go to D.C.”

Another student who saw an opportunity to challenge herself is current Davis College agricultural communications student Jenne Arrott. Arrott spent the spring of 2023 interning with the Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan in Austin, Texas.

“I knew I was into the advocacy part,” Arrott said. “So being the person I am—that wants to enact change and help the ag industry and debunk these misconceptions—I thought, the only way I can do this is through policy, or at least try, and hopefully then people will actually listen.”

Arrott described an eye-opening trip to South Texas with the Matador Institute of Leadership Engagement. She was able to witness the hard work producers put in every day, while also being welcoming and kind to outsiders. Coming from a non-agricultural background, it was then when Arrott said this experience changed her outlook on the industry.

“I got to hear the hearts of these people and what they’re here for, and how the ag industry is so deeply rooted and connected,” Arrott said. “There are so many people that are clueless to what’s going on, and I felt like since I came from the world of not knowing, I could be the bridge that helps others that do not know.”

Texas Tech alumnus and Legislative Assistant Samantha Barnett handles legislative activity for Congressman Barry Moore (AL-02). She oversees agriculture, transportation and infrastructure, trade, energy, Indian affairs, environment, telecommunications and housing.

Hopping Off The Hill

While most students who complete an internship through the Davis College Government Internship Program intern with congressmen and legislators, not all students do. Some students are placed with trade organizations and industry leaders.

Denny Atchley, a dual agricultural economics and business administration major, interned with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Washington, D.C., during the 2022 fall semester as a public policy intern. NCBA, one of the oldest trade organizations, represents over one million cattle farmers and ranchers across the country. 

“We sent out an email publication, narrowed information down to what the cattle producers really cared about and updated them every morning,” Atchley said. “We did research for the lobbying team, gave them the tools they needed to go up to the capitol and advocate for different policies. We got to do a lot of social media and event coordination as well.”

This line of work exposed Atchley to a broader area of agricultural advocacy and policy that other government interns may not have the chance to see.

Samantha Barnett, an agricultural communications graduate of the Davis College, also worked with an agricultural interest group. During the fall of 2021, she interned with the Farm Credit Council as a communications intern. 

“I feel the relationships I was able to build at Farm Credit find a way into my office every day,” Barnett said. “When I was working off the hill, I got to see the other side of those relationships. Ultimately, I got to the position I am at today by the position I was in and got through the program.”

Through this internship, Barnett said she was exposed to new aspects of the agricultural industry. 

“Farm Credit is interesting in the way they finance cow-calf operations, but also meat integrators, they finance every link of the value chain,” Barnett said. “I was actually doing communications work, but just by virtue of what the trade association is set up to do as the lobbying arm of the Farm Credit System, I was immersed in policy.”

The people in that region and the culture of Texas Tech are worth fighting for.

Samantha Barnett

Professional Preparedness

All the former interns mentioned the impact of the Davis College and how their educational experiences prepared them for their internships. Barnett, now a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Barry Moore, is surprised by how her education is used in her day-to-day work.

“In the Davis College I was a communicator by trade,” Barnett said. “I learned how to communicate rather obscure concepts into pieces of work that were digestible for large swaths of audiences. I am surprised every day by how helpful it is to be an effective communicator.”

Emily Matthews, a former congressional intern, said the classes she took while at the Davis College provided her with the foundation of what she needed to be successful.

“You have to be professional to work up here and I think without those classes and without those experiences I wouldn’t be as prepared,” Matthews said. “Through those resources provided even outside of class, it helps you be a next level college graduate that can work in an intense work environment such as Capitol Hill.”

The resources and support provided in and outside of the classroom is one of the main reasons why Jenne Arrott, former Texas state legislature intern, felt like she was able to succeed in her position.

“Not only did they give me tangible skills of how to excel in a workplace, they gave me tangible skills of how to be a better human,” Arrott said.

West Texas And Beyond

Texas Tech has a presence on Capitol Hill beyond its government internship program. Legislative Assistant Samantha Barnett said it is not uncommon to find a connection to the university wherever she goes.

“It is very rare in a room that I can’t find somebody who doesn’t have a tie to Texas Tech,” Barnett said. “Even in the most random meetings, I can find somebody who has a tie to West Texas, Lubbock, or Texas Tech.”

NSP CEO Tim Lust said it is the support Texas Tech has provided to students that has created this influential presence.  

“Texas Tech has been able to recruit very bright, talented students,” Lust said. “They’ve been able to pick the best of the best to go be a part of that system.”

The students who represent Texas Tech and the Davis College have created a reputation of hard working, reliable individuals, said Legislative Correspondent Emily Matthews.

“The kind of professionals Texas Tech and the Davis College produce are just out of this world,” Matthews said. “The people that have come before me, even before many interns, have made such a name for Texas Tech because of the hard work that they put in.”

PCG CEO Kody Bessent said the West Texas values that are instilled in students help give them the competitive edge working in policy and advocacy.

“Our values of work ethic from people that come from this area are very unique and very strong,” Bessent said. “Typically, most people that come out of Tech or surrounding universities are people that grew up here, they know the value of getting up, staying late, and working hard. And there’s something to be said for that.”

Because of the physical location of Texas Tech, Barnett argues what students are exposed to in the Davis College makes them feel obligated to go out and make a change where they see necessary.

“I think people are passionate enough about the industry because of what they see in West Texas, in Lubbock, and learn at Texas Tech,” Barnett said. “They feel compelled to come to D.C., to make a difference, and help solve some of the issues they see facing the industry.”

Barnett said she feels this obligation personally and thinks the people she interacts with on a daily basis share this feeling.  

“The people in that region and the culture of Texas Tech are worth fighting for,” Barnett said. “I feel a lot of the colleagues I interact with on the Hill feel the same way. We’re all here because our upbringing and our educational experiences led us to D.C., to make that part of the world and American agriculture better.”

This passion from these individuals has been critical for the work of organizations like Plains Cotton Growers and National Sorghum Producers.

“Washington, D.C., is a place where if you work hard and have talent, you can move up very quickly,” Lust said. “Just to have the influence of Texas Tech people throughout that community in various roles, whether it be on Capitol Hill or within some of the agencies like USDA, have been very important in terms of tying back to this area.”

The view outside the window is much different for Barnett these days. Rather than landing in a cotton field, she lands in the middle of the nation’s capital, takes a breath—this is her new home. Though, she recalls the experiences that got her to this point and remembers, at the end of the day, it is all about the producers.

“It’s easy to sit in our marble buildings in Washington and to think about these policies and regulations in abstract,” Barnett said. “Being with producers face-to-face reminds me why I do the work I do and who I do it for.”