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A golden harvest near Oakesdale.
Photo by Teresa Hodges





A harvest of a different sort

November 2017
By Trista Crossley

Mike Poulson is a familiar face in Eastern Washington agricultural circles, but the crops he harvests don’t come from seeds. Instead, Poulson gathers information, passing the concerns and worries of farmers to his boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).

Poulson, the agriculture and natural resource policy director for McMorris Rodgers, hasn’t always been in the business of politics. His father, a veteran, moved the family to a Columbia Basin farm when Poulson was 14, and he grew up like every farm kid, helping out before and after school. He attended Washington State University before returning to the farm full time.

“My second grade teacher thought I should be in math or physics,” Poulson recalled. “I told her I wanted to be a farmer, and that never changed. When you grow up on a farm and your dad farms, then there’s a strong likelihood you’ll end up farming. I’ve heard people say that farming is a way of life, and I guess that’s true.”

Although Poulson raised his own family on a farm, none of his three children have chosen to continue the tradition. In fact, he encouraged them not to become farmers, believing they had a better chance of success outside agriculture.

“At the time they were going into the workforce, it was one of the tough times in agriculture. I wanted them to get a chance, and agriculture is hard when times are tough, especially if the spouse isn’t from an ag community. I didn’t want them to go through that,” he said. Both of Poulson’s sons became electrical engineers, and his daughter is licensed in elder care.

Poulson’s first serious steps outside the farm were in the early 1990s when he began doing consulting work on public policy and environmental issues. He was often tasked with communicating complex environmental issues to the public. That work put him in contact with McMorris Rodgers during her time in Olympia as a state representative where they got along well. When she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005, she asked him to come with her. Poulson leased out his land and traded the long, hard days of farming for the often longer days of representing the congresswoman to various ag groups across her district.

How would you describe your job?

I just try to keep the congresswoman aware of what’s happening in the ag community, and the ag community aware that she’s concerned about what’s happening.

How does this job with the congresswoman compare to being a farmer?

The entire time I farmed, I’ve been up against environmental regulatory issues that continue to grow. Most of the areas I’ve been consulting in have been trying to deal with that regulation and deal with a public attitude that quite often isn’t based on facts.

How does your agricultural background influence how you carry out your current duties?

As you know, it’s been another relatively difficult time in agriculture. I’ve been there. I understand what that’s like for producers. I’m extremely sympathetic to the issues that they have to go through. However, the fact that I’ve been a farmer for most of my life doesn’t make me an expert in what’s going on today. The industry has advanced so much in the last 10 years—I find it amazing. So I don’t try to know everything that is going on, I just try to have the phone numbers to call to ask.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents a district where agriculture is a large part of the economy. How does your farming background facilitate her interactions with farmers?

First, understand that in the congresswoman’s office, it is a team game. There are a lot of people involved. I have at least two people that I deal with regularly in D.C. Any time that I feel strongly about something, I make sure they understand it. From the time I started working with the congresswoman, I’ve had a good understanding of what she thinks and believes. My thoughts and beliefs are very compatible with that. There’s times when I’ll talk to her directly and say “this is something I think is important.” As an example, I very much wanted her to meet with Sonny Perdue (U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary). I had the chance to have a conversation with her, and I told her that I thought it was very important, especially with the times we are coming into, that she establish that relationship.

What are some of the concerns you are hearing from farmers?

Right now, although it’s better than it was a couple months ago, commodity prices are at the top of that list. The regulatory burden just continues to grow and quite often without justification. There’s always a search to find more ways to tax people.

The Columbia River Treaty is extremely important right now. That’s something I’ve been working on. The congresswoman met with the State Department who encouraged her to get stakeholders actively involved, writing letters and coordinating where they want that treaty to go.

We are coming into the farm bill. As we move forward, that will be a continually increasing priority in what I do, and what the congressional office does.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I spend little time in D.C. My work in the district is often driven by other schedules, such as those of the wheat growers and the wheat commission. I try to be at those meetings that I can. Generally, I’m going to some kind of meeting at least three days a week and sometimes four or five days.

In the 12 years since you’ve held this position, has your job changed?

It evolves as the congressional offices evolves and staff changes. You work with different people, establish relationships with different people. It has changed, but on the other hand, it has stayed exactly the same. My responsibility is still the same, to keep my ear to the ground and try to have an understanding of what’s going on in the industry and being able to communicate that to her, especially on issues she needs to be on point on.

I also work a lot on the forestry side. It’s the same thing there. The Department of Agriculture includes the U.S. Forest Service. Basically the forest is a farming operation, or it should be because some of the same management things are necessary. It’s been a real challenge. We have a lot of communities, even in the 5th District, that have been dependent on the national forest. In last 20 years, the economic potential has dropped there by maybe 75 percent. I’ve especially worked in the Colville trying to regain a lot of that activity we had lost. It’s very similar to the challenges we face in agriculture.

Have farmers’ concerns changed in the time you’ve worked with the congresswoman?

Not a whole lot. When we had relatively really good times over the last few years, you hear very little. But when we were coming into this year, I was writing in my weekly reports back in January or February that we were going to start hearing a lot more.

What do you love about your job?

When I can accomplish something for somebody. When somebody has a problem, and you can go solve it. Sometimes those are few and far between. That’s the height of the job when you can actually help somebody.

What is the hardest part of your job?

When you can’t help them. Because of the bureaucracy of the particular agency or the ways that they have incorporated the legislation, it makes it virtually impossible to help them unless you get new legislation.

What are some of the common misperceptions farmers have about elected officials?

It depends on how involved they are. Most people who are involved have a pretty good understanding. I do hear a lot of negative things. The general attitude of the population is that Congress doesn’t do anything. They are there for the money. They don’t care. That may be the case with some, but not the case with my boss. She cares deeply, and all you have to do is be around her a little bit, and you’ll understand that.