March 15, 2010
by Kara Slaughter, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
“With reference to individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance.” -George Washington
So reads one of the three quotations at the top of the stone edifice at the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington, D.C. Part of what prompted me to quit my “real job” in January and become a policy intern with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute is the belief that if a nation can get our nation’s food system right, then other positive outcomes – environmental, social, political, economic – will follow. So it has been a privilege for me to spend two weeks of my internship shadowing and learning from the NSAC staff, who are working to hold onto past gains and bring about new reforms to the nation’s agricultural policies. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
Day 1: when pounding the pavement for sustainable agriculture, wear comfortable shoes.
One of my first tasks in D.C. was to hand-deliver a copy of a Climate Change sign-on letter to the offices of every U.S. Senator. Yup, that’s 100 offices, spread over 3 buildings. The task took about three and a half hours. Since the Anthrax scare in 2001, all mail to Congressional offices goes through a lengthy screening process that can delay delivery for weeks, so getting information in the hands of decision-makers in a timely fashion actually requires hand-delivery. NSAC itself disseminates several sign-on letters similar to the ones I delivered each year, and also delivers similar letters for member organizations who do not have any other contact “on the ground” in DC. “Next time we’ll have you deliver letters to the House side,” Ferd said. I stop worrying about letting my gym membership lapse.
Day 3: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
It is appropriations season in Washington, and that means Senate and House office buildings are teeming with delegations from all over the country, all asking for the same thing: money. I see groups of veterans, teachers, television broadcasters, defense contractors, bicycle commuting enthusiasts, and potato growers, all angling for their piece of the federal pie. Joining the chorus on Wednesday, March 3 was a delegation of beginning farmers and ranchers, organized by NSAC to make the case for NSAC member organizations’ appropriations priorities to their Senators and Representatives. March 9th and 10th, NSAC organized another grassroots fly-in to address the food safety legislation currently pending before the Senate. I’m gathering that these fly-ins are a big deal in Washington. It seems that even in today’s world of technology, sending a powerful message in Washington still requires a personal touch.
The second quotation at the USDA reads: “No other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought as agriculture.” -Abraham Lincoln
Day 4: There’s no such thing as a free lunch (at least if you’re a political appointee.)
I attend The Atlantic Food Summit, hosted by Atlantic Monthly magazine. The purpose of Atlantic forums such as this one is to foster informed discussion on pertinent policy issues. I am tickled by this only-in-Washington disclaimer on the registration page: “This educational event is intended for career federal employees and not for political appointees because lunch will be served for program participants. If you are a political appointee, STOP NOW – do not continue with the registration process.”
To read my more substantive observations about the Food Forum, click here.
Day 10: Seize the teachable moment.
I tag along with policy associate Ariane Lotti to her meeting with Senator Byron Dorgan’s legislative assistant for agriculture. The purpose of the visit is to advocate for NSAC’s appropriations priorities, and to ask for Senator Dorgan to sign on to a Dear Colleague letter encouraging colleges to vote for those appropriation levels. Ariane does a lot of educating during the meeting – Dorgan’s LA is not familiar with the Beginning Farmer-Rancher Individual Development Account or the Value-Added Producer Grant, and so Ariane fills him in on the benefits of these programs. I start to see how much legislative staffers, who are responsible for huge swaths of work, rely on lobbyists to educate them about programs that are important to people in the home district. I’m glad that this staffer is getting his information from NSAC.
“The Husbandman that laboreth must be first partaker of the fruits.” -St. Paul
This third quotation on the USDA headquarters building, which comes from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, is part of a longer passage that touches on notions of fairness and playing by the rules. I find this quotation the most thought-provoking of the three. What would our agricultural policy look like if farmers demanded the first share? For the last few weeks I’ve been toting around a flier from the National Farmer’s Union that shows the farmer’s share of the food dollar for a variety of familiar products. A farmer’s earnings from a $3.49 pound of boneless ham? 48 cents. The farmer’s share of a head of lettuce, retailing for $1.79? 25 cents. From a $2.99 loaf of bread? Ten cents.
A lot of NSAC organizations around the country are providing direct support to farmers who make the courageous decision to break out of the old model and start doing things differently. I’m struck by the fact that Paul did not say, “you must give the one who labors the first fruits.” To say it this way would suggest that the fruits belonged to someone else, and needed to be given back to the person doing the laboring. But no – Paul puts the onus on the farmer to keep what is rightfully his or hers. I hear Paul’s words as a call to action for farmers, to stand up and be counted, and to not give away what they have worked so hard to produce. I’ve seen farmers doing just that this week –participating on NSAC committees, making calls to their elected representatives, taking time away from work and family to fly in to Washington. As always, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for NSAC’s weekly roundup and action alerts.