Last Sunday morning, despite torrents of rain, more than 100 farmers, chefs, winemakers and concerned eaters packed into the barn at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett to share coffee and berry cobbler and to meet Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. And when the Senator stepped out of her car and onto a Ronnybrook milk crate to address the crowd, a blast of freshness and enthusiasm swept over the humid room, accented by the braids of just harvested garlic drying in the rafters.
Part of a recent series of listening sessions Gillibrand has been holding throughout the state in anticipation of next year’s renewal of our nation’s major food and farming policy, the Farm Bill, this South Fork stop included rapid-fire questions and discussion on everything from factory farming (and how to replace it) to military operations in Afghanistan (and how growing food could be part of the healing process for veterans).
Among the major themes the Senator discussed were the security implications of food and how we grow it, why we should reward farmers for conservation not production, and how a food-related fix might reduce our healthcare liabilities while putting money in the pockets of farmers and the American public.
“The more I developed my understanding of agriculture the more I see it as a security issue,” Gillibrand said, listing recent, large-scale food recalls in America (spinach, peanut butter, red meat), as well as food tainting scandals in China. “It occurred to me that I don’t ever want to get my food from as far away as China. We have a wholesome food economy in New York and we want to support and enhance that. You would not want just one large part of this country, like California, to be relegated to food. We don’t want to be on the path to outsourcing a part of food production.”
Gillibrand envisions a different path—one defined more by “wellgrown food” that is an integral part of economies throughout the country. As the first New York Senator, in nearly four decades, to sit on the powerful Agriculture Committee, she may be in a good position to make that shift happen.
Is she daunted by the task of proposing such forward thinking ideas to fellow committee members who hail mostly from the middle of the country? No, she says, since there is no shortage of good ideas to consider.
Like CSAs, or community supported agriculture, those arrangements by which people who live near a farm help that farm by making an upfront purchase of a weekly delivery of food. CSAs are a “proven economic tool,” in Gillibrand’s opinion. She recently helped create a competitive grant program that would give local organizations funds to help launch or expand CSAs, as the Sag Harbor Express reported, including “projects working with family farms, farms operated by or employing veterans–a particular passion of the junior senator–and those that reach out into “food deserts,” which are low income communities without access to fresh foods.”
Or consider, amidst the current market panic, the awesome potential for rectifying current food-related healthcare liabilities. Gillibrand noted, for instance, that the annual cost of treating diet-related conditions like obesity and heart disease total in the hundreds of billion dollars each year. Over a few years, that adds up to several trillion dollars in national health care costs. Eating better–as well as growing the sorts of crops that can help us eat better and getting them into people’s kitchens through CSAs, cafeteria-buying and other innovative programs–can slash those costs, while giving a boost to rural economies.
Gillibrand told the crowd she was inspired by the blossoming of small-batch vintners, cheesemakers, distillers and other startup food businesses. But she said most of our nation’s agricultural investment, the Farm Bill included, isn’t helping these businesses. She’d like to see a Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan program to help farmers invest in food processing, retailing or other related businesses that give farms an “essential secondary revenue stream.” As the Express reported, Gillibrand was proud to call New York “the center of Greek yogurt in the country,” noting that nationally recognized brands like Chobani are crafted in New York. Three major national labels, Chobani, Fage and Siggi’s, have production facilities in Upstate New York, with other smaller producers launching operations. She noted that the current Farm Bill included the first significant shift of commodity payments towards supporting growers of non-commodity or “specialty” crops—things like kale or Greek-style yogurt for that matter–and she wants this shift to continue in the coming bill.
In response to a question about mobile slaughterhouses and the desire of several East End farmers to raise and sell more pork and beef (not to mention the desire of locals to buy that meat), the Senator noded her head. “We need processors and butchers across New York,” she said. “It’s crazy. It’s a part of the food chain that we have lost. We need to integrate all of these aspects of production locally.”
The future seems bright, and not just because it’s high time New Yorkers had more say in how our nation grows food. We place in the top three states nationwide in crops like milk and grapes, after all. And more importantly, since most of the country–farmers and non-farmers, alike—stands to benefit from an overhaul of the Farm Bill, what’s good for New York is good for the country.
When the applause quieted down, and everyone returned to mingling around the food table, the discussion–naturally–turned to food. “I love pies,” Gillibrand said, as has been told before. Lately she’s been making raspberry pies, and she baked a pair of pies (blackberry, and raspberry-peach) to pair with the savory Maryland crabcakes at the 75th birthday of most senior female senator, Barbara Mikulski.
Gillibrand gave rave reviews to the massive bowl of Leigh Merinoff’s blackberry cobbler that fed the Quail Hill guests, who departed into clearing skies to do weeding, planting or other outdoor chores. “I meet with as many farmers as can meet with me. Not only are they the salt of the earth, but they are also some of the smartest businessmen and businesswomen I’ve ever met. I love farmers.”