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Fighting for farmers: city girl finds passion in farm policy, earns degree in agronomy

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Fighting for farmers: city girl finds passion in farm policy, earns degree in agronomy

Image: Fighting for farmers: city girl finds passion in farm policy, earns degree in agronomy

Camryn Billen, 23, didn’t grow up on a farm. She never drove a tractor until attending Chippewa Valley Technical College. But this week she will graduate with an associate degree in agronomy. Billen would like to work for an organization in Madison writing agriculture policy to advocate for farmers in Wisconsin.

When Camryn Billen was younger, she wanted to be a ballerina or a teacher.

“It always fluctuated,” she said.

When she graduates from Chippewa Valley Technical College on Friday, May 20, her associate degree will be in agronomy management – the science of agriculture by using technology – a far cry from being a teacher.

It’s not something she ever thought would appeal to her. After graduating from Chippewa Falls High School in 2017, she went to college for English education.

“A love of reading has always been a part of who I am,” she said. “My mom has photos of my brother and me reading encyclopedias.”

But the more she thought about teaching, the more she realized a different calling. At the same time, as a Wisconsin Farmer’s Union intern, she volunteered to be a representative at the capitol during the state’s lobby day. As an intern, she also worked at Kamp Kenwood in rural Chippewa Falls.

Billen, who now lives in Eau Claire, set her sights on agronomy as she began to appreciate the idea of community.

“I realized I wanted to go into teaching to change the system from within. I wondered how I could do that in a more inclusive way,” she said. “At Kamp Kenwood we did a lot of work around sustainability. How can we make sure the people producing our food make the money to keep producing our food.”

Billen said that job opened her eyes to food deserts, urban farming, fair wages for farmers, depressed milk wages, country of origin labeling and general education surrounding how our food is grown, processed, and distributed.

“This degree in agronomy stemmed from my personal belief: I should not be able to advocate for policy that I know nothing about,” she said as a matter of fact. “There is so much misinformation out there. I didn’t want to be a contributing factor to that.”

Those words coming from Billen don’t surprise Brent Christianson at all.

Christianson, Billen’s Agronomy Management instructor, said she is the type of person who is needed working in farm policy.

“She is a great advocate for everything we do, and she is so well-spoken,” he said. “She took the right approach to this. She knew she needed to first learn about, experience, and literally live and breathe agriculture by working at Right Choice Acres (CVTC’s own farmland) before she could write policy.”

Christianson said Billen had an idea of what farmers and farm businesses did but she wanted to be immersed in the process to understand how it really worked.

“We were simply a stop on her awesome path to success,” he said.

And although she had a huge learning curve, Billen didn’t let that stop her from gaining a needed education for her career.

“She’s like many students in that she is driven, passionate and a great student, but she set herself apart in that she has a vision and an end goal unlike any other student. She had to work harder than most other students because she didn’t have the background. In the end, she was able to see how it all tied together and it will really help her in the future.”

Billen’s dream is to work closely with farmers in some capacity. She would like to work with an organization in Madison to help farmers. She’s even considering going back to school to get educated more in-depth on policy knowledge.

But it’s quite possible she has already managed the most difficult part of her journey – gaining the trust of farmers.

At a CVTC Advisory Committee meeting recently, Billen was a student representative and gave a short update on her plans after graduation. She talked about her route to ag policy and two farmer members on the board stopped her mid-sentence and told her, “We need more people like you in agriculture. You are who we want writing policy and standing up for us,” Christianson remembered.

“It was pretty cool to see that kind of buy-in for her plan from a very well-respected local farmer,” he said.

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