Columnist: Campaigning for sustainable, organic agriculture
By Ramsey Nix
An old friend of mine called me at the end of last summer from the passenger seat of a bus as he rode past Mayor Bloomberg’s office in New York City. “Rams, you’ll never believe what I’m up to,” Heyward yelled into his cell phone. He was right.
Heyward was riding in a double-decker school bus (one upside-down school bus fused onto the roof of another) with an organic garden growing in the hull of the top bus. He and two friends, Daniel and Casey, had just embarked on a long campaign trail from New York to San Francisco to promote their White House Organic Farm Project (WHO Farm). “We want the next president to agree to plant an organic farm on the grounds of the White House,” Heyward excitedly explained.
“How in the world did you come up with this idea?” I asked.
Apparently, his friend Daniel heard famous foodie Alice Waters give a speech about “Edible Education,” a curriculum of growing, cooking, and sharing food in our public schools. She also touched on the president’s diet, stressing that our leader should set a good example by eating homegrown food. Those two ideas fused together in his friend, Daniel’s mind and out popped the White House Organic Farm Project, an initiative to get kids growing food on the White House lawn.
While this idea germinated, the ideal WHO Farm Mobile materialized. When Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s put his double-decker school bus, “Topsy Turvy,” (formerly used to promote True Majority) on the market, Daniel bought the bus, ripped off the roof, and planted an organic garden on top. He recruited some friends, and the campaign was born.
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Since hitting the road on August 4, the bus has traveled to schools, organic farms, food pantries, farmers’ markets, and festivals across the country. Last week, the WHO Farm mobile crossed Georgia on its way to Washington, D.C. Although Heyward had jumped off the bus way back in San Francisco, his buddies were still hot on the campaign trail. While neither presidential candidate mentions our nation’s diet during their stump speeches or debates, these activists are determined to make it a fundamental part of our political dialogue.
“We’re looking for a way to raise consciousness and awareness of an issue that for the most part is ignored by our elected officials,” Daniel explained. “Really, it’s a shame because food is so fundamental.”
The issues that both candidates hammer away at, however– economics, health, education, energy– all have major connections to food. “The consequences of the way we eat are health issues, transportation impacts, fossil fuel impacts, and climate change. A lot of people have connected the dots, but not enough to the point where it’s gotten on the political radar,” Daniel said.
The experimental moving garden on the bus’s rooftop is just one part of their campaign to urge the next president to lead by example. “They [the candidates] talk about change. We’re just giving them a recipe for success,” said Daniel.
The “recipe” he refers to can be found in the WHO Farm’s Petition, which begins, “We, the people, respectfully request that an organic farm be planted on the grounds of The White House … The White House Organic Farm will be a model for healthy, economical and sustainable living everywhere. It will serve as an educational tool and economic aid, and as a means to provide food security in the Nation’s Capitol. It will reconnect the Office of the Presidency to the self-sufficient agricultural roots of America’s Founding Fathers.”
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In 1785, Jefferson said, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
Ever since my encounter with the WHO Farm mobile, I’ve wondered how the upcoming election might impact these “most valuable citizens” in America. Since Morgan County remains an agricultural enclave, I thought I might seek some answers to that question.
County extension coordinator Bobby Smith explained that presidential elections largely affect agriculture, because the president appoints the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “The USDA shapes agricultural policy according to the president’s priorities and views on agriculture,” Smith said.
Unfortunately, neither candidate has mentioned whom they might pick to head up the USDA, but they have outlined some of their plans pertaining to agriculture on their websites. Both candidates understand that increased fuel costs have greatly impacted farmers, and they stress the need for a comprehensive energy strategy.
McCain’s plan seems to place great trust in the market. He plans to control taxation and regulation, reduce trade barriers to foreign markets, and strengthen agribusiness competitiveness by eliminating wasteful government spending.
Obama, on the other hand, believes the government should prevent anticompetitive behavior against family farms, ensure farmers protections against market disruptions and weather disasters, and provide tax breaks to new farmers while implementing payment limitations on mega farms.
I scanned both candidates’ websites for mention of organic agriculture. Barack Obama is the only candidate who mentions it. His campaign literature states: “Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace. Demand for sustainable, locally grown, grass-finished and heritage foods is also growing quickly. These niche markets present new opportunities for beginning farmers because specialty operations often require more management and labor than capital. To support the continued growth of sustainable alternative agriculture, Barack Obama will increase funding for the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program to help farmers afford the costs of compliance with national organic certification standards. He will also reform the USDA Risk Management Agency’s crop insurance rates so that they do not penalize organic farmers.”
Obama also wants to implement the Country of Origin Labeling law, so that American producers can distinguish their products from imported ones.
No wonder my buddy Heyward got off the bus in San Francisco to go to work in Obama’s campaign office. For anyone invested in the locally grown, organic food movement, the choice is clear.