Friday, December 19, 2008

Jen Reflects on What Farmers and Eaters Have Accomplished

The NY Times today devotes one of their editorials to the topic of "Fixing Agriculture." The editorial illuminates the centrist farm policy positions of Tom Vilsack and enumerates the challenges he'll face as chief administrator of "this country's broken agricultural policy," including fixing a system that "has long favored the largest farms," working on the issue of farm subsidies, and determining the true value (if there is one) of ethanol. While the editorial doesn't say anything that farm and food leaders have not already said themselves, the existence of this piece itself is something to consider.

I haven't conducted an official survey, but it seems to me that the position of Secretary of Agriculture has generated more dialogue in the general population than any other cabinet appointment. Various petitions about the selection gathered nearly 100,000 signatures, concerned eaters sent thousands of emails to Obama, and folks came together across movements, recognizing the effect of food production on so many aspects of our lives.

Not too long ago, it was a new and daunting job just get people to think about where their food comes from. Since then, we've seen the growth of farmers markets, an explosion of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and a wave of new farmers getting on the land. Regardless of how anyone in the diverse world of farming and food feels about the nomination of Vilsack, it is heartening and important to acknowledge the incredible progress that's been made. It represents more than 20 years of work but also the recognition that farmers are too important to lose. Family farmers are key to the health of our economy, our environment, our selves. For sure, this work has truly only just begun and we cannot rest in our pursuit of a sustainable system of family farm agriculture! In terms of changing farm policy, we have a long, hard road ahead of us. And family farmers themselves will never have an easy job -- farming as an occupation is wrought with obstacles and risk. But it is invigorating to look for just a moment at what has been accomplished and imagine what this momentum will continue to accomplish into the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jen reacts to the new Secretary of Agriculture pick

President-elect Obama announced his pick for Secretary of Agriculture yesterday, naming former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to the post. Vilsack is not one of the boldly different, sustainable candidates many of us were hoping for. Nonetheless, there are reasons not to give up hope.

Vilsack is known as a strong proponent of biotechnology, in fact he was named Governor of the Year by the largest biotech industry group. Just last week, in a case similar to the Starlink genetically-modified (GMO) corn that was accidentally released, Monsanto admitted that unapproved GMO cotton was harvested and may have entered the livestock feed supply. And the US General Accountability Office said that more incidents of unauthorized releases could have occurred and gone unnoticed, contradicting what biotech companies tell us — that these organisms can be contained. While the USDA works to dismantle barriers to GMOs being tested and approved, the GAO and legislators from farm states who understand that these breaches threaten the markets and livelihoods of farmers (and the safety of our food supply) are calling for more regulation. Tom Vilsack has vehemently denied that he is in the pocket of the biotech industry; now he'll get a chance to prove it.

As governor of Iowa, Vilsack is viewed as having protected the interests of factory farms and biotechnology corporations over the interests of family farmers and eaters.

On the other hand, he did accomplish one thing for family farmers in Iowa: he was successful in implementing legislation that gives market and price protection to family farmers raising livestock. Additionally, Vilsack has spoken about the need for reform of the U.S. farm subsidy system. He believes that farm payments should reward farmers for practices that protect our water supply and build up our soil, rather than rewarding the largest corporate farms that are the most egregious polluters.

While his actions as governor leave much to be desired in terms of demonstrating a commitment to the kind of sustainable, family farm agriculture we're working toward, in recent interviews Vilsack's words have demonstrated that it is still possible for agricultural policy change at the cabinet level. Perhaps as a representative of US agriculture and not simply the agriculture of one state, Vilsack's policies will be more encompassing of all of us — farmers and eaters alike.

In farm state stump speeches, President-elect Obama said he wants a Department of Agriculture, not a Department of Agribusiness. At Farm Aid 2005 in Chicago, Illinois, he said, "When [farmers] can diversify and ... we can in fact produce... healthier food and more profits can go into the hands of family farmers as opposed to the big food processors and mega businesses, then I think we are doing well for everybody." Regardless of his choice for Secretary of Agriculture, Farm Aid holds Obama to his word and believes that together we can create the family farm system of agriculture that results in strong local economies, a clean environment, green energy, healthy citizens and good food.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jen Updates Us on the Search for the Next Secretary of Agriculture

Whew, what a busy time of year it is. We've been a bit quiet on the blog as of late and for that I apologize. We've been in the thick of grant season--examining the hundreds of grant proposals we've received (totaling more than $2 million in requests!) to figure out where Farm Aid funds can best be put to work. But more on that later. In the meantime, the food and farm world is still buzzing about who President-elect Obama might choose as his Secretary of Agriculture. And while we've been part of those discussions we haven't had the chance to blog about them. So, let's get caught up, shall we?

Since Nov 5th, folks in the food and farm world have been talking about who might be a good choice for the Obama administration's Secretary of Agriculture. The Secretary of Agriculture is the head of the US Department of Agriculture, which manages alot more than farms, including our nation's forests and conservation, rural development, food safety, and nutrition programs like food stamps and the school lunch program. While Obama has named many of his key cabinet members, he has not yet named his Secretary of Agriculture, a position that many people are very interested in. The scope of this job means that it affects not just farmers but activists working on all kinds of issues, from the environment, the economy, public health, and more--not to mention all of us, since we all eat!

The Washington Post recently put together biographies of those considered to be on the "short list" of candidates, including Kathleen Sebelius, Governor of Kansas, Charles Stenholm, a lobbyist and policy advisor at an agriculture law firm, and Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture. It is notable that this particular short list is completely different from the short list of just a few weeks ago.

Many additional names have been suggested for the post, including our own Willie Nelson and Michael Pollan, who has spilled a lot of ink in order to influence the general public and the President-elect on the importance of our food and how it is produced. A recent petition has been collecting many signers who seek a sustainable choice who has "a significant grassroots background in promoting sustainable agriculture to create a prosperous future for rural America and a healthy future for all of America’s citizens."

Of course, many a rational voice with political experience has cautioned that this a political appointment, which typically is not influenced by public opinion and usually goes to a high-level political figure. But as you can see that hasn't stopped anyone from voicing their opinion. I think that's in part due to the passion that folks have for good food and farms and also because of the historic step the Obama-Biden administration has taken in truly inviting citizens into the decision-making process. Their latest invitation asks us to submit questions about what they're going to do in the White House. You can submit your own question and vote for the questions that you'd most like to see answered. Farm Aid encourages everyone to get involved--sign petitions, ask questions, voice your concern. Whether or not we're guaranteed an answer, it's our duty to ask!

In his column yesterday, Nicholas Kristof suggests that the Secretary of Agriculture be renamed the Secretary of Food because, as he explains, "A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat." While this is true, I think that more and more people are interested in becoming farmers and we need a Secretary of Agriculture (or Food, or some combination thereof) who is dedicated to helping those people become farmers. A Department of Food overlooks the fact that we need farmers to bring us food!

With so many demanding a Secretary of Agriculture who represents the interests of family farmers and us eaters over the interests of the factory farms that have been rewarded by previous Secretaries of Agriculture, Farm Aid is hopeful that Obama will make a good choice. We'll continue to keep our ears open and let you know what we're hearing.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Kari says, "Mmmmmm, FOOD!"

The Farm Aid staff and family were invited to the home of the #1 Fan Family of Farm Aid! Donn, Veronica, Michael, and Zach Heath made us a bounty of food. We also enjoyed a slide show of Farm Aid's 2008 concert that Zach put together. It's fun to see Farm Aid through the eyes of others; it gets me excited about what we’re doing all over again.

We feasted on Mexican fare and the delicious cake above! I had to be rolled out of the door at the end of the night.