“You lost out here?” I smiled and shook my head. “No, I’m where I want to be.”
How did I find myself on a cattle ranch west of Woodland, California, generating quizzical looks because I wasn’t wearing boots, didn’t have a wide-brimmed hat, and was driving a 2003 Volkswagen New Beetle?
I was there on a mission, executing a City of Woodland economic development campaign I’ve been fortunate enough to work on for the past year. But more broadly, I was there because I lucked my way into a job that would end up as my most rewarding educational experience since I graduated from Cal in 2015.
That economic development campaign is “The Food Front,” a public-private partnership articulating why Woodland is a great place for food and agriculture business and innovation — and why Woodland residents should be proud of it. I was at the ranch, surrounded by old guys judging me, because I’ve been out of the office learning about these businesses to build profiles and materials highlighting this unique concentration of organizations in a somewhat sleepy town of almost 60,000.
I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out how best to educate our town and our region about an industry cluster that forms the backbone of Woodland’s economy yet few really understand. Since graduating from Berkeley in Political Science, I did not envision a future meeting up with ranchers to learn about their grazing practices and the intricacies of herding dog training. Nor did I think I’d get a tour of an extra virgin olive oil processing facility or watch as agricultural trailers get welded together. It’s fascinating to learn more about the operations of these companies — and the breadth of businesses that make up the catch-all phrase “food and ag.” From seed researchers and optical sorting to fabricators and the farmers themselves, a lot of people influence food on its way to our plates.
It’s been a thrill to present to a Pakistani delegation and design freeway billboards, but the most valuable piece of my time in Woodland has been simply connecting with the businesses and families that make up this community. The City ends up with a slick one-pager, but for me these visits yield conversations with an entirely new and fascinating community.
I’m rewarded with the inherent benefit of sharing time with people and having genuine conversations. Heading out to all these facilities, interviewing key players, and snapping a few pictures helps us celebrate our local businesses and create collateral. But more importantly, it gives City Hall a face and a name and a handshake. It helps convince business owners that the City doesn’t exist to throw up bureaucratic hurdles — in fact, we’re motivated to make things easier. As we explain The Food Front in person, we help develop partnerships within town between individuals who have never spoken but were operating a half mile away from each other for 20 years. For many people, local government is government, and every visit chips away at perceptions that City Hall isn’t accessible, agile, or supportive. I’ve made friends and colleagues in a world that was foreign and, frankly, a bit demeaned coming from an academic and urban background.
Like the peach rancher who also has a Master’s in electrical engineering, the experience has been surprising. I’ve learned a bunch from a group of (yes, very old and white and male) business leaders about an industry that helps explain California’s leadership in the nation and the world.
I don’t know a lot about the Farm Bill or tomato processing — I know more than I did last summer, that’s for sure — but I like to think I’m decent at holding a conversation. And that’s been enough to lay the foundation for an initiative that will help a growing community flourish while appreciating why Woodland was founded in the first place.
As much as I’ve loved it, I’ve found myself incapable of tangibly helping folks more often than I’d like. It’s not just policy questions I can’t answer — it’s pervasive challenges that City Halls around the country face. From homelessness to housing to public transportation, I’m not quite prepared to do the technical work to make sensible solutions a reality. These chronic problems face everyone, from seed researchers to ramen producers to those completely uninvolved in the food and ag economy. That’s why I applied to the Goldman School of Public Policy.
Spencer Bowen is a native of Davis, California, and a Berkeley undergraduate alumnus. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Goldman School of Public Policy and is the Public Address Announcer for Cal Men’s Basketball.