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WASHINGTON -- Four current or former Capitol Hill staffers shared their experiences working for powerful lawmakers and provided tips for swaying members of Congress at the Washington Public Policy Conference's kickoff advocacy symposium, held here Oct. 3.

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Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, moderated the Advocacy & Grassroots Seminar on Oct. 3, part of United's Washington Public Policy Conference. Over 500 people were expected to attend this year's annual conference, set for Oct. 3-5 in the nation's capital. (Photo by Gordon M. Hochberg)

Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, moderated the Monday afternoon panel by asking questions about how the young Washington agricultural policy aides ended up advocating for agricultural issues, even though some had little exposure to farming.

All took different routes to obtain their influential jobs and all agreed farm and food policies were likely to be hot issues in years to come.

Anne Cannon MacMillan, senior adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, acknowledged that a seat on congressional agricultural committees may not be the most sought-after job on Capitol Hill in part because of the shrinking number of farms and Americans' disconnect with the role of farms in producing foods. There is a lot of staff turnover in these jobs, she warned.

A former aide to Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), Ms. MacMillan said that she took advantage of farm visits in the home district "as much as the budget would allow" to learn the ropes in advocating for produce constituents.

She recommended that businesses reach out to congressional staff and offer farm visits that can quickly teach young staffers the complicated issues affecting the industry.

Tyson Redpath, senior vice president at Russell & Barron, Inc., a Washington, DC-based lobbying firm, urged produce businesses to stay in touch with congressional offices between annual fly-in meetings.

"What you do between annual meetings matters most," he said.

But personal stories about how laws or regulations may affect a business might have the most sway with members of Congress and their staffs, those are the stories that a lawmaker may repeat during debates, said Matt Perin, staff director of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition & Horticulture.

Trade associations also play an important role on Capitol Hill. When there's a question about how a bill will affect fresh produce companies, Jacqlyn Schneider, senior professional staff member to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), said that she calls people like Mr. Guenther for quick answers.