Retired U.S. Congressman Charles Stenholm’s life has come full circle. He began his illustrious career at Tarleton Junior College in Stephenville, Texas. Some 60 years later, he’s back at Tarleton — now a state university — giving lectures to a new generation.
Surprisingly, Stenholm, who grew up on a farm near Stamford, Texas, says he never planned to attend college.
“I thought I knew what I wanted to do and that was to farm,” Stenholm says. “But I also liked to play sports, so I went to Tarleton and enrolled in a two-year vocational agriculture program to further my training and learn to be a better farmer.”
However, his plans changed at the end of his first semester.
“Dr. Joe Autry, who was the head of the department, called me into his office, and basically told me, I was wasting my folks’ money,” he recalls. “If I wanted to farm, there’s the door, but he suggested that I get a four-year education in agriculture. I ended up going to Texas Tech, where I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural education.”
Planting Political Seeds
After three-and-a-half years of farming and teaching agriculture, Stenholm became the executive vice president of the Rolling Plains Cotton Growers. That step helped begin his career in politics. Stenholm ran for Congress in 1978. He spent 26 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight years as a ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee. He also helped usher in the crucial 2002 Farm Bill.
“One of my goals was to build credibility with my colleagues,” Stenholm says. “You learn so much on the farm, but when you get into Congress, you have to go a step further. Just knowing it is not enough. You have to look for ways in which you can translate that knowledge into an understandable explanation that will garner support.”
Learning To Lead
Stenholm attributes his years as a member of the National FFA Organization for much of his political success.
“One of the great assets of FFA is the parliamentary procedure, training and competition,” he says. “You can recognize, even in Congress, those members who were in the FFA. I’ve served with former state and national presidents of the FFA. In every case, they’re a cut above the rest.”
Jim Butler, retired deputy director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, also learned parliamentary procedure and debate through FFA.
“It really helped me through all aspects of my career in public service and, in particular, in my role with various governments, including state and federal government, as well as my international role,” Butler says.
He also credits his early involvement with another youth agricultural education program, 4-H.
“Both FFA and 4-H taught me how to not only work together — meaning participating and judging team activities — but also how to work independently,” he says. “I also established some early business skills.”
Ranch Of Service
Butler’s career, including a stint as deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service, began on his family’s Texas ranch.
“We were always quite active in organizational issues, whether it be with the farm bureau or livestock groups,” he says. “That gave me some exposure to the legislative and advocacy processes for agriculture.”
During his political tenure, Butler led a major budget reform effort, helped pave way for the private sector to impact global agriculture policies and provided a forum to interact with 193 countries to promote sound agriculture policy affecting trade, poverty and production.
Today, Butler is optimistic about the future of agriculture.
“I see more opportunity now for those who want to pursue a career in agriculture,” he says. “Now the word ‘agriculture’ means everything from the link between agriculture and human medicine, to the role of nutrition and the science of gene manipulation and selective breeding, to the legal and regulatory aspects.”
Meanwhile, Stenholm points to the advice he received all those years ago as a freshman at Tarleton.
“Get an education,” he says. “That will open so many more doors for you in the future. We’ve got a tremendous number of opportunities for young people in the area of agribusiness and agricultural research.”