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All Roads Lead Back to West Texas

Fenton and her three kids
Fenton’s 9-year-old daughter, Ella Jane, enjoys gymnastics and robotics; her 8-year-old son, Hays, enjoys being a cowboy, baseball and cub scouts; and Lane, Fenton’s two-year old daughter, enjoys making noise and running around the house.

A recent high school graduate from a rural West Texas town stepped onto the Texas Tech University campus in fall of 2000 – the turn of a new century. She knew three things: she loved agriculture, she enjoyed politics, and she had absolutely no idea what she wanted to be when she “grew up.” Yet, there she stood, meeting with her academic adviser, “all grown up.” 

The Beginning

Carmen Fenton, of Amarillo, grew up around agriculture in White Deer, Texas. Fenton was an area FFA officer and was highly involved in extracurricular actives. After graduating high school, she was uncertain about studying agricultural communications at Texas Tech University.  

“To be honest, I wasn’t really that jazzed about going into agriculture,” Fenton said. “I felt like it was all I had ever done.”

While Fenton was uncertain about studying agricultural communications, Cindy Akers, Fenton’s adviser, eased her uncertainty. 

“When I got to Tech and started digging into ag com,” Fenton said, “I realized this is something I could make a career out of.”

During Fenton’s senior year, ambition turned into opportunity. While she enjoyed agricultural communications, she still had a passion for policy and was eager to pursue her interest. Akers recommended she apply for the congressional internship through Texas Tech.

“I have always loved politics,” said Fenton. “The congressional internship program at Tech really just married the best of both worlds for me.” 

Four Congressmen 

After completing her internship under Congressman Randy Neugebauer and graduating from Texas Tech in December 2004, Fenton continued her time in Washington, D.C., where he was hired on to work in Congressman John Carter’s office as his staff assistant and later his scheduler.

After three years in Carter’s office, Fenton moved to the Oklahoma delegation to work for Congressman Tom Cole as his press secretary. At the time, Cole was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

Fenton’s time with Cole was short lived when Carter offered Fenton a job as his communications director. 

It was an offer Fenton could not turn down, so she went back to work for Carter, and stayed there three years. In 2008, she decided to take a small step back from policy and move to Austin, Texas, where she worked for Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association doing public affairs until 2013. 

By this time, Fenton was married, had two children and her husband was in law school. Together, she and her husband, Jason, decided it was time to move closer to home. 

 “After moving back to Amarillo, I went to work for Mac Thornberry,” Fenton said. “That was the fourth U.S. congressman I worked for.”

After two years in Thornberry’s office, the director of communications position at Texas Cattle Feeders Association opened.

“The job was a good fit, and I have been there ever since,” Fenton said. “It’s been quite a ride.”

Back to West Texas

Ross Wilson, TCFA CEO, said he knew Fenton from her time working for Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association as head of their communications in Austin. Wilson admired Fenton’s great work ethic and the energy she brought to the table. 

“I can truly say there is no other profession I would want to dedicate my life’s work to.” 

Carmen Fenton

“We did our best to keep up with Carmen after she moved back to Amarillo,” Wilson said. “When Carmen was ready to get back into a full-time career, we had an opening, and we were exited to hire her on.”

TCFA represents the cattle feeding industry in three states: Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. As the largest cattle feeding region in the country, TCFA producers market more than 6 million cattle each year.

With Fenton’s creativity and eager spirit, she hit the ground running. 

“Since the day I started, until today,” Fenton said. “the nature of the organization has changed drastically.”

Due to the advancement in technology, today’s consumers want to know the exact origin of their food. Naturally, feedyards face some challenges other agriculture organizations may not encounter.

“Typically, when consumers are asking questions about how animals are treated, factory farms, animal antibiotics, etcetera, a lot of those questions are directed at feedyards,” Fenton said. “It’s not always easy to paint that positive picture for consumers.”

It is Fenton’s goal to be transparent with consumers and to talk about how beef is produced modernly and efficiently in feedyards. She said people want to know how their food is raised and it is her job to tell them. 

“I want people to know that what we produce is safe and healthy,” Fenton said. “It’s good for you, it good for me, it’s good for my family, and you should feel good about eating it.”

Fenton and the TCFA team have modified communication efforts at TCFA by developing a more user-friendly website, creating a prominent presence on social media, starting a TCFA blog, and updating all communication platforms to better meet the standards of modern technology. 

Along with the help of TCFA’s communications coordinator, Madeleine Bezner, Fenton is also responsible for developing an annual magazine, designing brochures and other printed media, writing press releases, taking photos, traveling, and helping organize annual events. 

“Carmen contributes many things to TCFA – hard work, loyalty, creativity,” Bezner said, “but most importantly, she contributes a passion for storytelling.” 

One of the greatest challenges of Fenton’s position is developing a working relationship with producers, feedlot workers and TCFA members to develop a consistent, transparent message throughout all communication platforms. 

“Inherently, people in agriculture aren’t very comfortable talking about themselves – they just want to do their job,” Fenton said with a chuckle. “Well, like it or not, it is now part of their job.”

One of Fenton’s favorite parts of her job is drawing back on her previous job experience to bring a level of expertise to the office pertaining to legislation and policy. She said she feels like her position has allowed her to marry all of her interests – beef production, communications and policy. 

“There is nothing else that I would rather do – really,” Carmen said. “I can truly say there is no other profession I would want to dedicate my life’s work to.” 

Out of the Office

When Fenton is out of the office, she can be found at baseball practice, Cub Scout events, gymnastic meets, robotic team meetings and chasing her two-year-old with her husband. While Fenton has a lot going on in her life, she always strives to balance her time between work and family. 

“Ever since I met her, Carmen has really always been ‘Super Mom,’” Wilson said. “I’m happy she came back to West Texas, and I think she is, too.” 

The Mentor

Kristina Butts Visiting
Butts visits with Delanie Crist, a past mentee, about their time in Washington, D.C.

From a young age, Kristina Butts was involved in the agriculture and cattle industries. Because of that background, Kristina thought she would find a job within production agriculture after she graduated. Like many students, however—because of an opportunity to intern in Washington, D.C.—those plans changed. That opportunity blossomed into years of work in D.C., but more importantly, that opportunity grew into a habit of mentoring.

“When I came to Texas Tech, I didn’t really know what my career was going to be. I just assumed I was going to find a job in the cattle industry,” Butts said while sitting in the office of Texas Tech University System Chancellor Mitchell. “If you would have told me I was going to be living in Washington, D.C., for nearly 15 years working on ag policy, I’m not even sure I could have told you what ag policy was.”

But because of a few good mentors throughout college and early in her career, Butts found her way down a completely different path. Made possible through her studies at Texas Tech and her work in D.C., she began bridging the gap between agricultural producers and the consumers they serve.

“I’m really passionate about the role models I had throughout my career who found ways to encourage me and inspire me,” Butts said.

Because of the mentors who helped her and her experiences in 4-H, FFA and Texas Beef Ambassadors, Butts found a new passion that has helped guide her career—returning the favor by becoming a mentor herself and creating more opportunities for students around her.

While many of her positions throughout her career have dealt with policy, creating opportunities for others has always become a focal point of hers.

It started when she accepted a graduate position in the animal science department back at her alma mater—Texas Tech—immediately following her congressional internship in Washington, D.C.

“I had a couple of job offers in D.C.,” Butts said, “but Texas Tech called and asked if I would be interested in a food safety research project.”

During her graduate research, Butts also worked as a graduate assistant in the Texas Tech President’s Office where she mainly worked to help expand the university’s congressional internship—the very one she had just completed.

“At the time, we only had one floor of what we call the Texas Tech house, so our program could accommodate eight students, and we wanted to grow that,” Butts said, “but we needed to grow the housing. We were able to grow up to 18 students. I worked with several presidents to expand the internship program over that three-semester program.”

Kristina’s accomplishment of expanding the Texas Tech Congressional Internship Program—creating new opportunities—during her time at the president’s office was her first real-world taste of helping others professionally.

After Kristina finished her graduate studies in animal science, she had a five-year stint as a staffer for U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith—the same place she worked during her Texas Tech congressional internship.

“I was very fortunate he was my first boss, to really kind of show me what the statesmanship really is in D.C. and how to work across lines,” Butts said with a smile.

I’m hopeful one day one of the former interns I had will hire me when I’m looking for a job in the future. I always tell them I want them to be better than me.

After learning the ropes of the political culture of Washington, D.C., Butts took a position with National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

As the lead for NCBA’s lobby team, Kristina led many high-profile events and meetings on Capitol Hill, but there was more to it than just that for her. She took great passion in reestablishing the organization’s internship program.

“When I was at NCBA, I worked to reestablish their internship program,” Butts said. “My joke was, one day I’m going to leave D.C., and when I leave, I want to make sure there’s a pipeline—some really great future minds in agriculture who understand policy, who want to come to D.C. and want to be that advocate and middle person to help support the industry.”

After eight-and-a-half years working on behalf of the U.S.’s beef producers, Kristina got a call from Texas Tech University asking her to return to the university to help set-up its federal affairs program—keeping her in Washington, D.C.

“The other hook they gave me was to help work on the Texas Tech vet school,” Butts said with a smile as she remembered that moment, “and that was a big passion of mine.”

During her time working on behalf of Texas Tech on Capitol Hill, Delanie Crist—a young woman participating in the university’s congressional internship program—met Kristina.

While in D.C., Crist said Butts was extremely helpful to the Texas Tech congressional interns—both CASNR and the president’s interns.

“The most time we spent with her was when she would bring us lunch,” Crist said. “We would eat in the [House Agriculture Committee] room and go around sharing our experiences and talking with one another.”

That experience, for Crist, allowed Butts to become a mentor for her during her time representing Texas Tech in D.C., motivating Crist to take all the opportunities she could.

“She was invested in us,” Crist said with a nod. “The lunches were something that weren’t an obligation for her, but she did it through her desires to help interns and to influence them in a positive light.”

Crist’s experience is not an outlier—it’s representative of Butts’ influence on students and interns she’s mentored throughout her career.

Even today—as the Chief of Staff for the Texas Tech University System Chancellor—she creates new opportunities to gain real-world experience for student assistants in her office.

“I’m hopeful one day one of the former interns I had will hire me when I’m looking for a job in the future,” Butts said. “I always tell them I want them to be better than me.”

Through all her work with students and interns in the past, one thing is very clear—she is invested in the future.

According to the American Psychological Association, mentors—including those found within an internship—are likely to increase professional identity, involvement in professional organizations and satisfaction with the job. Butts’ investment in the future generations through mentorship and creation of opportunities will leave a lasting impact.

“I just like finding the time to give back and help nurture the next generation, whether that’s here [at Texas Tech] professionally within higher education, politically in D.C., involved in policy or just involved in agriculture,” Butts said. “I’m just trying to get them plugged in.”

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