by Terry Rogers
On November 9, 2018, Milford High School FFA members participated in a live Town Hall meeting with Senator Chris Coons in the Agriscience Barn. The students developed the idea while talking with Senator Coons at the Delaware State Fair over the summer. Several students took turns asking the Senator questions about agriculture as well as learning more about his background and what led him into politics.
“My mom was a big influence on me,” Senator Coons explained when asked why he decided to pursue a career in politics. “But it was really my wife, Annie. She really believed that I could make a difference and she really pushed me. I was recruited to run in 2006 and I told them I was really not interested, that it was not my thing. I remember coming home from a luncheon where I was approached to run for council and I came home, laughing, asking who would run for County Council. My wife just listened and then said “You grew up here. You care about this area. It is time for you to give back.” So, I give her the credit or the fallout, however you want to look at it. Without her support, I never could have done it.”
Senator Coons explained his role in promoting Career and Technical Training at the federal level. He and the rest of the Senate passed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education Act which includes a provision he and fellow Senator Marco Rubio created known as the American Dream Accounts Act. The provision allows organizations like the FFA or school districts to create college savings accounts for children when they are in elementary school and inform them of the importance of Career and Technical Education (CTE).
“One of the committees I serve on is the Appropriations Committee, a spending committee,” Senator Coons said. “This year we added $1.2 billion to strengthen CTE across the country because we are now beginning to realize that apprenticeships and career technical education is the best path for a debt-free career right out of high school.”
Senator Coons sees expansion of exports to other countries as a way to improve agriculture in the future. He pointed out that President Trump recently opened export options with Canada that will provide more opportunities for the United States. He also believes that research is critical to moving agriculture forward as more companies move into low-hormone and organic lines to create healthier foods. Senator Coons told the students that if he were to go into a career in agriculture, it would be as a chemist.
“I grew up in a family with many chemistry majors and chemists around me” Senator Coons said. “My Boy Scout leader was a chemist at DuPont. There is a new generation of chemical products, pesticides and herbicides, being developed that have a lesser impact on the environment, require less water, have less toxicity and fewer biohazards. The challenge is to produce things that are safe for the environment but that also kill pests. I’d like nothing more than to work in a lab that also lets me see things out in the field. One of my favorite experiences as a Senator was visiting a DuPont field lab in Kenya where an Ethiopian Ph.D. had been developing hybrids that work in their particular soils and climate. Their rains are not like ours. They have monsoons followed by dry periods and they are planting at 7,000 feet. This particular scientist had been working on hybrids for 20 years and showed me his test plots. I then met families who are now able to produce three times as much corn on the same small plot of land. I would love to be a researcher in that type of environment.”
Pointing out that there were great role models in the Milford area, including Representative Charlie Postles and Senator-elect Dave Wilson, Senator Coons told the students that they should remain in school and continue to give back to the community. He pointed out that joining a volunteer fire company or the National Guard would provide leadership skills that could be carried throughout life.
“We raise enormous amounts of food in the United States,” Senator Coons said, when asked how he would like to address food insecurities. “However, a large amount of the food we raise is wasted. It gets plated and served in restaurants, goes to hospitals or retirement homes. The Food Bank of Delaware does a great job of dispersing food to those that need it and the federal government does provide funding for their programs. We also fund programs like Meals on Wheels who bring food to shut-in senior citizens. Waste food still has value. You can feed animals with it which then converts the waste to human food.” Senator Coons pointed out that the Port of Wilmington lands more bananas, grapes and Moroccan clementines than any other port in the country, yet entire ships can rot before they can be inspected. He is pushing for a better connection between inspectors and port authorities to be sure food is not wasted.
After leaving politics, Senator Coons has not decided what he will do, pointing out that he has twin sons who are in college and a daughter who plans to go next year so most of his salary goes toward tuition. He would like to teach and has an idea for a charter school that he has discussed with friends. When asked who his biggest influences in life were, he did not hesitate.
“My mother, my wife and my daughter,” he said. “Not that my father, my sons and my brothers were not, but I was raised by a very strong woman who went through some tough times when she was young. She showed me with grit and determination what I could do. She went back to school and returned to the workforce, determined that her three boys would grow up to be good men. One of her favorite sayings was that hard things that are worth doing give life meaning. We had about a quarter-acre vegetable plot and she canned vegetables the entire time I was growing up. Somehow, having two sets of grandparents who married in 1929 and made it through the Great Depression eating food they grew themselves had a big impact on my parents.”
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