When Edible East End invited Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to visit Quail Hill Farm last week for a meet-and-greet over cobbler and coffee during national convention season, resident farmer Scott Chaskey noted, to adoring smiles, that “Never would we have guessed that a Senator was interested in CSAs.” The Senator’s visit was full of inspiring surprises, and demonstrated her fearlessness on hot-potato issues, from the 2012 Farm Bill to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” “You’re like The Who in a hotel,” said Jon Stewart when the Senator was on the The Daily Show last winter. “Wrecking the joint.”
Such rockstar-like behavior may be needed, since the country’s food policy is so entrenched and the cards are stacked against so many American eaters. In fact, Senator Gillibrand could be our state’s–and our nation’s–best hope for making more than incremental change to the Farm Bill now being debated. As Andrew Grossman pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Gillibrand’s hands-on approach to give the Farm Bill “a New York attitude,” stems from the state’s more diverse farm economy than those Midwestern corn and soy-raising states that have traditionally dominated food and farm politics. New York is a top national producer of crops like cabbage, grapes and dairy, in addition to being a top food consumer, leading the nation in farmers markets, CSAs, children eating in schools and people relying on food stamps.
As the Senator noted at Quail Hill, she’s guided by being a mother of two young children who makes the shopping and cooking decisions for her household. But also her unique, diverse Empire State constituents. “A lot of ag policy isn’t written for New York ag,” she said. “It’s not for small farmers, not for organic farmers, not for beekeepers. As a consequence, our national ag policy doesn’t reflect common sense.” The Senator added that her Farm Bill priorities–for the Farm Bill currently being hashed out–include giving non-commodity crops (the fruits and vegetables that dominate New York ag) access to national crop insurance and disaster relief programs, and boosting funding for CSAs and other local food buying for poor communities. Not to mention the Holy Grail of Farm Bill politics: shifting farm subsidies away from commodity production and towards reinforcing health and ecological goals.
She’s already putting her money where her mouth is, as a concerned parent, with recent legislation to label genetically modified foods, to limit use of the most toxic pesticides, and to improve honey labeling laws to protect American beekeepers from foreign competition. The nation needs stronger food safety laws, she said, but also laws smart enough to recognize the difference between giant industrial food producers and small farmers selling direct to neighbors. She has been perhaps the most vociferous opponent of slashing food assistance programs. Perhaps most impressive, her programs and policy initiatives reflect an understanding that our agricultural problems are multi-faceted and won’t be fixed with incremental tweaking. That is, the successful approach will be a holistic one that considers not just how we farm, but also how we eat, how we structure our health care priorities, how we manage our landscape. The Senator has championed such innovative programs as getting veterans involved in community gardening and using food programs to help tackle our trillion dollar health care bill.
After fielding questions from local Slow Food leaders, start-up farmers and conservationists, the Senator donned a sun hat and joined the crowd for a tour of the farm’s bee yard and hives with beekeeper Mary Woltz. When the bees began to swarm, the Senator, along with other attendees, seemed hesitant. “Bees are your constituents too, Senator,” someone shouted out. “I know,” the Senator replied, and stepped closer to pear into the honey-filled hive.
UPDATE: Look for a more detailed profile on Senator Gillibrand and her impact on national food politics in the coming issue of Edible East End.