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Monday, February 12, 2007

Democracy and Local Farms

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Northeastern Organic Farmers Association of Vermont’s Conference (NOFA-VT). The classrooms and gymnasium of Randolph Technical College were filled to capacity from a crowd egger to learn about opportunities in promoting a healthy and environmentally sustainable food source. Speakers informed attendees on a variety of issues ranging from marketing techniques, farm diversity, soil management and legislative policy

The keynote address titled “Finding the Food Less Traveled on the Road to Democracy” was given by Kathy Lawrence former director of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. She addressed the importance of local food sources as being the key to sustaining our democracy. Current agriculture policy in the US has been centered along the global economy, without little focus on the rural communities. Globalization of agriculture is not something of recent times; it has been an on going process for centuries she stated.

To some there may be nothing wrong with the ramifications of globalized agriculture. There may be nothing wrong on principles getting your apples from New Zealand your beef from Brazil and your lettuce from California but there are lasting impacts of the plight of family farms and sparing of rural America. Massive environmental degradation caused by production of large mono-crops, the commoditization of crops causing loss of jobs, health outbreaks due to super bugs of e-coli and the fuel resources needed to ship products across the globe are all relative to globalized agriculture.

At this juncture in time huge agri-business are competing to dominate the world’s food supply to increase profits. Family farmers and small business are being forced to sell. The problem with this notion is that the corporate model “pushes the cost of production off the backs of their ledger sheets and onto the farmer,” she stated. Profits are their number one priority. The claim that is what the free market is about is a false dichotomy. “The highly concentration of corporate power is destroying the free and fair market place.” Agriculture policy has been manipulated by the large corporations to favor their principles, even in Vermont lobbyist from Monsanto and pseudo dairy Coop- Agri-Mark effectively give expert testimony to legislators in a hope of influencing policy.

While the demand for healthy, natural and environmental sustainable produce and meats has rising there lacks the proper infrastructure to obtain that. Policies have been dictated by industry officials for years but there is hope in creating positive change. “All politics is local” she stressed to the crowd, “You know the solutions; it has to be informed by the people it affects.” Control of local food source is the primary hope of establishing a democracy. A diverse local agriculture produces a sound and clean environment. There are “simple solutions” but your voice needs to be heard. She encouraged everyone to thank Senator Leahy for working on the upcoming farm bill and to push other elected officials for more of the same.

Government can do “good”, despite the perception that has been altered by corporate interests who have manipulated the system to their benefit. If everyone spent five minutes a month calling their elected officials policies can change. We must “Change peoples perception of what government can do for you, this is democracy at work”, she concluded.

Following, Kathy Lawrence, Senator Bernie Sanders thankfully addressed the crowd. “I have heard more intelligent conversation in the last thirty minutes than I have heard in a week in DC,” he opened to the crowd.

“Every area of our country is moving in the wrong direction,” he remarked as if he was still on the campaign trail. He gave thanks for the initiatives in the room for producing local and environmental sustainable agriculture. “Most people are not living a lifestyle that is sustainable.” Evidence of global warming has become a reality and he charged that “organic agriculture is one of the ways” we will control it. “I believe that we have a chance to bring an agriculture bill that is sustainable.” Senator Sanders received a gracious standing ovation to end the session.

A transformation has occurred in the acceptability of organic produce and meats, as evidenced in that room. No longer is it a fringe “hippie” market, the issue now resonates strongly through the halls of laws. While it was my first attendance at a NOFA conference, I could see the passion and interests generated from the crowd. A perception to make an impact and difference in our world was strong in their hearts and minds.

There was more workshops to attend and I choose one led by VT House Agriculture Chair David Zuckerman(Progressive) and Rep. Will Stevens(Independent). Both men are organic farmers first and then citizen legislators second. While many in attendance questioned them regarding policies ranging from Genetically Modified Organisms, to lack of slaughter house facilities to dairy aid there was on over all feeling of concern in the crowded room. Both men listened empathically to the crowd, while trying to address each matter. Rep Zuckerman expressed deep interests and explained the crowd that while he is more of a “socialist” there were many within the House and Senate who do not follow that ideology. He stressed the importance of making contact with legislators and let them be aware of the issues you support. While no answers were achieved in that room, I hope that a greater commitment and involvement will come from it.

Many issues revolve around the fall of democracy. Whether it is in regards to agriculture policy that favors monolithic agri-business or foreign policy that centers on the concerns of the oil industry, our democratic institutions have been sold out to the shallow interests of money. To counter act the power of money it is vital that each and every individual participate in the democratic process. The democratic process is more than just voting it is using your first amendment right of free speech. If you want healthy, locally grown and environmentally sustainable produce and meats speak out.

Robb Kidd

"They are permanently teaching Russia about democracy. But those who teach us, for some reason don't really want to study it themselves." Russian President Vladimir Putin


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