The feeling of powerlessness and passion to be a voice for the voiceless is what led Chanel Tewalt to become involved in government and agriculture over the last 15 years.
In January, Tewalt was appointed by Gov. Brad Little as the director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
“Chanel Tewalt has a rich understanding of agriculture’s past, present and future in Idaho.” Said Madison Hardy, the governor’s press secretary. “With more than 15 years of experience at ISDA, Governor Little was confident in director Tewalt’s ability to lead the agency and advocate on behalf of Idaho’s farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers.”
According to Hardy, Tewalt was a clear choice for Little.
Tewalt comes from an agricultural background; she grew up on a farm in southern Oregon. That’s why she wanted to be in the room where decisions were made when it comes to Idaho’s agriculture.
“You need people in these positions who care about the outcome, not just implementing a program,” Tewalt said.
According to a bio provided by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s public information officer, Tewalt has been involved with the state Department of Agriculture since she attended college at Boise State University.
Outside of her career, Tewalt and her husband, Josh, who is the director of the Idaho Department of Correction, have two children. They co-own a family club lamb and seedstock operation in the Treasure Valley and have made it a priority to raise their children in and around agricultural production.
Idaho agriculture director has two goals for department
In her time since January, Tewalt has expressed two main goals for the department: to create a more enthusiastic work environment and to focus on the purpose that the department of agriculture serves.
“This is a really difficult time to have employees in the state of Idaho, it doesn’t matter where,” Tewalt said. “I want ISDA to be a place that’s driven by a mission, where people who are there are motivated to serve agriculture because they like putting their technical skills to work (and) highlighting the story of agriculture.”
The passion and enthusiasm of personnel plays into the second goal: highlighting the purpose behind the department of agriculture.
“I love Idaho agriculture so much; I want that to be at the forefront when we have interactions,” Tewalt said.
Beyond the department’s typical scope of responsibilities, Tewalt wants to focus on telling the story of people in agriculture.
According to her bio, Tewalt wants to focus on creating transparency and strong customer service within the department. She said that she would like to express appreciation for and focus on the aspects of agriculture that often go unnoticed.
“There is this incredible industry, and look at all these amazing things happening: exports, farmers markets, organic and conventional farming. The intent is that we need to always be telling the story,” Tewalt said.
Legislative priorities for Idaho’s ag department
Less than a week into the job, Tewalt gave a budget presentation for the department to the Idaho Legislature.
“I’m very grateful that I had a background in the agency’s budget,” she said. “(Without it), it would have been incredibly daunting and difficult.”
Tewalt said that there is a high level of preparedness needed when giving the budget presentation, explaining that the presentation goes beyond finances.
“What was important to me was to show an understanding of the programs and where the budget is going. Why do we spend money on this area? Why is it important to these customers?” Tewalt said, “Numbers are one thing. If there’s no ‘why’ behind it, it is hard for anyone to understand.”
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The 2023 agriculture budget presentation focused mainly on explaining how past programs, such as pest control research, have been funded and the impact that they have had on agriculture in Idaho. The presentation explained how this year the Idaho State Department of Agriculture plans to expand research, agricultural development and grants specifically for specialty crops such as onions and potatoes.
Tewalt’s goal for the budget presentation was to “meet (the legislators) where they’re at” and make sure her purpose and intent with the money was clear.
“Legislators have to be experts in health and welfare, transportation, ag and every other thing that they’re doing. I think we do a very good job of doing our job. You also need to explain why it is important, what the purpose of it is, especially if you’re not from (an agricultural background),” Tewalt said.
The collaboration between government agencies and organizations with the department of agriculture is a crucial step, according to Tewalt.
“If we’re not collaborating and making unified decisions, we put our customers at a disservice.” Tewalt said.
Aside from the regulatory aspect of the department and other agencies, Tewalt said that she hopes to work with other agencies and organizations to further promote and benefit Idaho as a whole.
“In an ideal world, I would like to see less stress for the farming community,” Tewalt said.
She says she would like to see more support for the physical and mental health of farmers and those involved in food production, especially given the financial stressors that the industry faces.
“I would love for everyone to have the opportunity to see firsthand what it takes and what it means for food to get to their table,” Tewalt said. “Whether we’re talking about how to deal with weather, how to deal with inputs, fertilizer, the costs associated with farming and just the sorts of work that it takes.
Tewalt said she wishes everyone saw “the innate love that farmers have for food production.”
There can often be a disconnect between those involved in agriculture and those who aren’t, she said.
“The beauty and hard work and the incredible experiences you have on the farm is something that I was lucky enough to grow up with, to have this connection to the land around us,” she said.