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From Stanford farm to U.S. Congress

Earth Systems alumna Riya Mehta turns hands-on experience into a career in public policy as legislative assistant for U.S. Congressman Jimmy Panetta.

Riya Mehta
Mehta at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C. Photo CreditChristian PierreCanel

Riya Mehta had one of those conversations that completely shifted her early career trajectory – one that would only come around every five years…

Student holding yellow case
Mehta as an undergraduate helping to harvest green onions during volunteer hours. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Riya Mehta)

Mehta, Earth Systems ’18, did not think she wanted to work in government while considering different options for her John Gardner Public Service Fellowship until she met with Joe Shultz, Democratic staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

When Mehta and Shultz met, he detailed the committee’s ongoing efforts to write and pass a Farm Bill, which would govern the nation’s food and farm policy for the next five years. Mehta, who studied international food security while at Stanford, realized she did not know enough about domestic food policy, which impacts everyone in this country, and arguably, everyone in the world. So after graduating, she decided to join the Senate Agriculture Committee under Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan).

The Farm Bill is a major piece of legislation that needs to be reauthorized approximately every five years and addresses all of our nation’s farm and food policy, including agricultural subsidies, food stamps, and international food aid. When Mehta began her fellowship, the House of Representatives and Senate had each passed a version of the Farm Bill, but they were vastly different. The Senate Farm Bill had strong bipartisan support, while the House Farm Bill had passed on party lines. Now, it was her team’s job to help bridge that divide.

“It was completely wild,” Mehta recalled. At first, her new colleagues allowed her to be a fly on the wall at important meetings to get a feel for how things worked. Then, she started working on the Commodities and Crop Insurance Titles of the Farm Bill that determine price support, revenue support, and risk management programs for farmers across the country.

Commodity and crop insurance policy is extremely technical and numbers driven. During negotiations, Mehta’s team worked with their counterparts on the Republican staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the Democratic and Republican staff of the House Agriculture Committee, to come to consensus on the Commodities and Crop Insurance Titles of the Farm Bill. These lengthy negotiations took place almost daily, and when staff members were unable to make progress, the Congress members themselves would meet to make tough, bipartisan decisions.

I feel lucky to be surrounded by people who want to keep working hard and keep fighting back.

In the end, the Farm Bill passed both chambers of Congress with strong bipartisan support – and thankfully right before the 2018 government shutdown. If the bill had not passed prior to the shutdown, the Agriculture Committees would have had to start from scratch at the beginning of the next year. This fellowship – and the process of working on and passing the 2018 Farm Bill – allowed Mehta to get a sense of how federal government works, and how a bill becomes a law. It made her realize she really loved working on the Hill and that she was not done in D.C.

Full Time on Capitol Hill

Riya Mehta and Javier Zamora
Mehta and farmer Javier Zamora, who owns and operates an organic berry farm in Watsonville, California. (Photo Credit: Melody Meyer)

In April 2019, Mehta started working for California 20th District Congressman Jimmy Panetta as his Legislative Assistant on Agriculture, Energy, and the Environment. Mehta is the point person for anything happening in her office related to those topics. Switching from the more focused and detailed work of writing the Farm Bill to the quick pace of being a legislative assistant was “kind of like drinking out of a firehose,” she said.

This work includes things like preparing briefings, drafting questions for witnesses at congressional hearings, and helping to write legislation. She is constantly meeting with people and then reporting back to Panetta to ensure he is aware of issues important to his constituents. Agriculture is the number one industry in Panetta’s district, which includes Monterey and San Benito counties, and portions of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. A lot of farmers know Jimmy Panetta by name. Mehta enjoys working for someone who cares about his constituents and wants to know the details. He has never told her a memo is too long.

“My job is so much about people,” Mehta said. “Whether it’s talking to farmers or researchers or other staffers or other offices, it’s very much a people job. The fact that I get to interact with people who care so much, in some ways it reminds me of Earth Systems. This is just another group of people who care about the world.”

Lessons from the Farm

Some of Mehta’s seminal experiences as an undergraduate included her time at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm. She visited for the first time as a freshman to help during one of the farm’s weekly volunteer days. After spending the afternoon digging in the soil, propagating sunchokes, and talking with Director Patrick Archie, Mehta was hooked. She asked how she could get involved with more projects at the farm and Archie replied, “Just show up.”

Compared to all the other things at Stanford that were so competitive, where you have to apply to get into a class or a club, Mehta realized how special this place was, and knew she wanted to come back. She started to spend more time at the farm and took all the classes offered there, including The Ethics of Stewardship and Archie’s Principles and Practices of Sustainable Agriculture. Her senior year, Mehta founded and became the president of Stanford Farmers.

Mehta’s hands-on education at the farm informs much of her work on Capitol Hill today. In her current role, she talks to farmers all the time. Part of her job is to really understand the issues they need addressed in Congress. Mehta’s experiences on the farm allow her to better empathize with the farmers she works with and understand their challenges. This education also instilled in her a deep appreciation and respect for the vocation.

“I think that farmers are some of the smartest and most innovative people,” Mehta said. “They are constantly thinking ahead, planning, and making contingency plans. … I feel really lucky that the goal of my job and what I do is to help those people. That love of agriculture, that love of farming, that desire to dedicate my job and life to working on these issues was all born at the Stanford farm.”

In college, Mehta concentrated on Human-Environmental Systems within the Earth Systems Program. As much as she loved the subject matter, she said the major also was so much about the people: the other students, but also the incredible instructors.

“It’s so fun to work with people who care about the same things you care about, and generally people who care,” she said. “That’s what I love about my current office and people who work on the Hill in general: Everyone cares. I feel lucky to be surrounded by people who want to keep working hard and keep fighting back.”

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