Farm girl, farm bill: Veterinary student works on landmark legislation
Michigan State large animal student Chelsea Render temporarily trades halls of academia for halls of Congress.
A Michigan State University food systems scholarship enabled veterinary student Chelsea Render to work in the office of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. What was supposed to be a summer in Washington, D.C., evolved into a full-time position working on the farm bill. Render spent more than a year in the capital before returning to finish school where, in February, she witnessed President Obama sign the farm bill into law at MSU.
A hiatus from veterinary school can be difficult to overcome, but when that time is spent rubbing shoulders on Capitol Hill, debating the merits of the Agricultural Act of 2014, even drafting portions of the legislation—better known as the farm bill—it can’t be passed up. So Chelsea Render, now a fourth-year large animal student at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU), went to Washington.
The 27-year-old from Manchester, Mich., grew up on a sheep and Haflinger horse farm immersed in farm life, but she developed an interest in public policy as well. Still, sidelining her veterinary education for a short-lived career in politics was never officially on her radar.
Render studied agricultural business and animal science with a focus in food systems in her undergraduate studies. So when the opportunity to apply for MSU’s food systems scholarship arose, she jumped at it. The grant offers students interested in food animal careers opportunities in government or industry research. One of the grant’s positions was in the office of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Stabenow is chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and her office was seeking—for the first time ever—a veterinary student to complement the efforts of a summer law fellow. Render was accepted. She left Michigan after her second year and headed to Washington, D.C.
Anything under the jurisdiction of the agriculture committee came across Render’s desk. “My job was mostly researching and writing memos, basically background information,” Render says. “But while I was there, everything we considered had the possibility to be included in the farm bill.”
Render’s position could have been short-lived and under the radar, as many temporary positions in Washington are, but Render’s self-proclaimed farm girl candor stood out. “I kind of stuck out like a sore thumb,” Render says. “But over time, at least in the agriculture committee, I just learned how to present the same information but in a different way—a way that was a little more meaningful to policymakers.”
The Michigan farm girl made an impression on D.C.’s top policymakers. She was offered a more permanent position in August 2011 working directly for the agriculture committee. Render says it was difficult to make the decision to put off her veterinary education, but she received a lot of support from MSU, which acknowledged that her opportunity was truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance. “Here I am, growing up on a farm in Michigan having training only in agriculture, only in veterinary medicine, but given the chance to work on policy that’s going to affect people back home and my future clients,” Render says.
Self-proclaimed Michigan farm girl Chelsea Render called Washington, D.C., home for more than a year while working in Sen. Stabenow’s office. She is now poised to graduate from veterinary school at Michigan State University this year with plans to begin a career in large animal practice.
Once she was brought on staff, Render moved from her small summer apartment to a row house with six strangers. But it was a short walk to the Hill; she swapped her truck for Washington’s public transportation system.
She started to get more responsibilities in her new position and became more involved in drafting portions of the farm bill, especially dairy and livestock policies. Working with stakeholder groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP), the National Pork Board—plus farmers from all over the country—Render says she learned a lot about seeing an issue from many perspectives. “I was forced to see things from all sides. I think that has definitely changed how I communicate with people and how I see things,” she says.
Render says she stayed in Washington for 16 months total, until it was time to return to veterinary school in fall 2012. Before she left, she was able to watch the farm bill be debated on the Senate floor. “That was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Sitting on the Senate floor while they debated amendments. You’re watching history happen,” Render says. She participated as well. Render was called on during the debate to clarify provisions and answer questions from the Senate.
“It was really hard to leave [Washington],” Render says. “I was just totally immersed in policy at that time. Being in D.C. was really awesome. I’d never lived in a city before, but because I knew it was temporary, I could embrace everything.”
Render credits her temporary status and not worrying about a future in politics as the reason for her success. “I didn’t really have anything to lose by just being myself and saying what I thought was the best way to do things,” she says. “I think that’s maybe what made me stand out.”
Afraid more time away from school would cause her to start forgetting what she’d learned, Render returned to East Lansing, ready to finish school. “It’s just more my pace. I really enjoyed the fast pace of the Hill, but I don’t think I could do it long term,” Render says. She said while her mind was still caught up in policy issues it was difficult to focus on her veterinary studies.
After a few months of feeling like she was leading a double life, and extra studying to catch up to her classmates after her absence, Render says she is feeling more settled and ready to move on to the next phase of her life. “Now I’m back home; I’m ready to practice veterinary medicine and move somewhere rural. But for awhile, I was trying to do both,” Render says.
After returning to MSU to finish veterinary school, the farm bill Render worked on for more than a year was signed by President Obama at the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State. The final bill was nearly 1,000 pages and worth $956 billion. The signing at MSU was only the second time Obama has signed legislation outside the White House.
A taste of Washington did come back to her in February. When President Obama decided to sign the farm bill into law at the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at MSU, Render, of course, got an invitation. She didn’t get to meet the president, but felt fortunate enough to witness the historic event.
She’s excited to see how the U.S. Department of Agriculture will implement and regulate the farm bill, adding that she won’t be completely cutting her ties to policymaking. “I think that maybe more of us should become involved—maybe not as intensely as I was. Politics are frustrating, but it’s helpful to understand them,” she says. “I still plan to stay involved through organizations like AVMA and AABP to influence policy in a positive way.”
Render doesn’t have a job lined up yet but would like to work with cattle or horses in Michigan. And while rural Michigan may be far from the halls of Congress, she believes her experience will be especially useful to her profession and her future clients. Farmers—even other veterinarians—may be surprised to find her uniquely qualified to help navigate the new regulations.
Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland with extensive experience writing for the veterinary community.
Farm bill snapshot
The first farm bill was passed in 1933 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, then again in 1938. A version of the farm bill has been passed every five years since then, with the latest incarnation signed Feb. 7 at the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Lansing, Mich. It was only the second time President Barack Obama has signed legislation outside the White House.
The newest farm bill promises to reduce the national deficit by $23 billion and is touted by Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office as being the most significant reform of American agriculture policy in decades. At nearly 1,000 pages, the $956 billion bill achieved rare bipartisan support after years of negotiation.
The five-year law cuts farm and subsidy programs by $14 billion but funds a number of veterinary medicine programs, including the Veterinary Services Grant Program. The Veterinary Service Grant Program will provide $10 million annually to help relieve veterinary shortages and support veterinary public health programs. The farm bill also funds a number of food animal and public health programs such as the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, Animal Health and Disease Research, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, and the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act of 2013.