Cotton producer Dahlen Hancock wanted to get more involved in the industry that supported his family and local community. But at first glance, the leadership level of the cotton industry seemed lined with people too busy for a producer from New Home, Texas.

The National Cotton Council’s Policy Education Program (PEP) proved him wrong. It brought him into a world that was a lot smaller than he had thought and one where his experience as a farmer was a sought-after asset.

The NCC’s PEP program, which is sponsored by Syngenta Crop Protection through a grant to the Cotton Foundation, “puts you on a fast track,” said Hancock, who participated in PEP in 1999, the program’s inaugural year. “It really helps you quickly learn about the industry and where you need to go for more information. The biggest key for me was just the network of people that you have access to. I realized that the cotton industry leadership are all industry people and farmers just like I am,” said Hancock.”

PEP enables up to four producers from each major Cotton Belt region to attend the NCC’s annual meeting where they receive an orientation to the NCC and its policy development process firsthand. The participants also receive communications training, which has proven to be a key step when immediate, informed communications between cotton producers and Washington is necessary.

“We don’t need to spend a lot of time educating producers on why we’re at a certain juncture on an issue and why they need to make a call,” said John Gibson, the NCC’s Member Services director and PEP coordinator. “After PEP, they’ve been through the policy development side, have spent time with John Maguire (NCC’s senior vice president for Washington operations) and the communications training has helped them understand why they need to communicate.”

“It makes you want to embrace and try to be a part of the industry and to keep the industry that we love alive and moving forward. I would have felt intimidated without the program,” said Hancock, a cotton, corn and milo producer.

Steele Byrum went through the program in 2011, and isn’t at all shy about taking on more responsibility. “I’m ready to be pulled off the bench by the NCC if they want me to meet and speak to a group of people. It’s not just meeting with our lawmakers, but with our local news people and anybody who is looking to do any kind of story on farming.”

Byrum’s family farm, which produces  2,300 acres of wheat, double-cropped soybeans and cotton near Zuni, Va., was recently featured in two articles on cotton production by two local newspapers and in a television program on RFD-TV.

For Byrun, PEP doesn’t necessarily shape producers into policymakers or Washington analysts. It’s about developing confidence at the grassroots level. “I want to be eloquent enough to answer questions and sound intelligent while doing it. If you’re not very confident in what you’re talking about, it’s more difficult to get your point across, and you’re not very effective. That’s the biggest part of communications training through PEP, getting you comfortable in certain settings.”

Ben Guthrie, who farms corn, cotton and soybeans with Balmoral Farming Partnership, near Newellton, La., participated in PEP in 2003. He moved back to the farm after graduating from Louisiana State University with a degree in political science and history.

At the National Cotton Council’s Annual Meeting in Tampa in 2003, Guthrie saw how the seven cotton industry segments work together. “I’ve grown up around the NCC, so none of that was necessarily new to me, but it was interesting to see all of the inner workings. When you’re developing policy for all of the seven segments, it’s hard to get seven farmers to agree to something, much less seven industry segments. It’s pretty impressive when you see all the legwork that has to go into making one policy for everyone.”

At Syngenta’s headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., PEP focused on Guthrie’s communication skills. “One of the cool things that we did there in Greensboro was media training,” Guthrie said. “They interviewed us on camera and let us watch it afterwards and critique our own interview. That was pretty interesting and has been helpful ever since.”

Guthrie says relationships and friendships made during the PEP “are as big a part of the program as what you actually learn in the classroom. It seems like everybody that you meet in a leadership role has been through PEP at some point or another.”

Guthrie realized his knowledge as a producer is important to the industry. “At first, I didn’t think that I would even be capable. But you realize that you have a lot to bring to the table just from your experiences and from what you have been doing at home and what you have learned from other leaders.”

Bryan Bone, who participated in the program in 2009, farms cotton, alfalfa, pistachios and grapes around Buttonwillow, Calif. He said part of his experience “was being able to network with the people at the National Cotton Council and getting to know who they are and what they do. Good policy does not come from a fractured industry, but from working together. I was really not very well-informed about that. There’s a whole lot bigger world out there than what we live in here on the farm.”

Bone said dealing with the media can be overwhelming, but his training has helped. “They did a lot to make you feel comfortable around others through teaching you the proper protocols.”

But there was something bigger driving Bone’s involvement. “There’s a certain civic responsibility to participating in PEP. I’m not naturally educated along those lines, and but it’s something that I need to do to carry my end of the load,” said Bone.

More than 160 National Cotton Council producer members have been through the NCC’s policy development and implementation process through PEP which was initiated in 1999. As a result, many of those participants are involved in U.S. cotton’s central organization today.

Marjory Walker, director of communications, production and AV services for the NCC, says the program plucks producers who may not have been plugged into the industry and changes them. “They become active, even if it’s at the local level, and they become an advocate for the NCC or the industry.”

Hancock has come a long way in 14 years since participating in PEP. “In 1999, I would’ve never have thought that I would’ve taken officer roles in Cotton Incorporated and Cotton International. At that particular time, I would’ve never thought that I could have done anything like that.”

Hancock found that people in the cotton industry that he once thought, “might not have been touchable, are very touchable. All you have to do is pick up the phone, and you can have contact with him. They don’t mind listening. PEP helps you get comfortable in your own skin.”