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United Fresh's 'Under 35' speakers share insights of working on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Congressional staffers provided a glimpse Oct. 1 into the daily challenges of working on Capitol Hill as the United Fresh Produce Association readied members for more than 100 visits to congressional offices at the Washington Public Policy Conference.

Robert Guenther, United Fresh senior vice president of public policy, moderated the 35 and Under Fresh Impact Panel, where six speakers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congress, a lobbying firm and the produce industry answered questions about their jobs.

One of the more surprising discoveries produce business leaders find when they make lobbying visits each year is the young age of congressional staffers.

Chris Adamo, majority staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that staffers must be "a mile wide and an inch deep" on a range of issues, and that Capitol Hill is dominated by "a lot of overworked kids that don't know a lot." As a committee staffer, though, Mr. Adamo said his job is to delve deeper into agriculture issues.

Dottie Bond, legislative associate for The Russell Group, a Washington, DC, lobbying firm, said that she's fortunate to learn from Randy Russell, who has been working on agriculture issues for 30 years.

Young staffers must struggle to gain respect. Working long hours and learning from people with expertise on issues are ways to bridge the age gap and gain respect, said Joel Leftwich, minority deputy staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Besides the long hours and little pay, the congressional staffers complained about the endless volume of emails that must be answered. Still, there are benefits.

Kasey Gillette, agricultural policy advisor for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said the best part of her job is when she can immediately fix a problem with one phone call.

At USDA, Trista Etzig, program manager for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, said the best part of her job is hearing from recipients of specialty crop block grants.

For Mr. Leftwich, who works for Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the "rush" of collecting enough votes to pass the farm bill on the Senate floor gives him a feeling of accomplishment.

The sole representative of the produce industry on the panel shared the benefits and pitfalls of his job.

Nick Mascari, who is in charge of new business development at the Indianapolis Fruit Co. Inc., said the best part of his job is "working in a great industry with great people" and selling a product that keeps people healthy.

The worst part, he added, is that "perishable products don't care if you're on vacation."