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This is how it is: Jeremy Forrett of the Farm Credit East Crop Growers Insurance Service division.

Harvesting Consensus

After a lean upstate apple crop, members of Congress, the USDA and local farmers gather to discuss agriculture policy

 

By Amy Halloran

The United States secretary of agriculture got local last week, visiting fifth grade students at Poestenkill Elementary and area farmers at Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie on Friday. Secretary Tom Vilsack was touring with U.S. Rep. Scott Murphy (D-Glens Falls), who is seeking reelection to Congress from New York’s 20th District.

Standing in an apple barn at the edge of an orchard at Golden Harvest, the bright sunny day making him almost invisible, Vilsack talked about his roots in New York State. The former governor of Iowa, and former candidate for president, attended Hamilton as an undergrad and studied at Albany Law. These experiences gave him, he said, a sense of upstate New York and the depth of its agricultural heritage.

Vilsack then stitched the 85 farmers and farm advocates sitting on folding chairs to his Iowa home, where, he said, his family makes cider in a press that is 100 years old. Coming from another politician, the stories about alma maters and family roots might seem like grasping platitudes, but the agriculture leader seemed genuine in his concerns. He certainly has a reputation for listening. This year, in a joint effort with the U.S. Department of Justice, the USDA, of which Vilsack is the head, held a series of antitrust hearings around the country to assess issues of competition and regulation in several agricultural arenas.

On Friday, Murphy noted that he sits on the Agriculture Committee for the House. He introduced Vilsack by identifying the USDA’s many roles in support of agriculture, pointing to the morning’s tour of water and sewer infrastructure and the elementary school.

For 45 minutes, Murphy and Vilsack took questions on a variety of topics from apples to organics. The politicians’ answers sometimes addressed the questions that were asked and sometimes dodged them. The atmosphere in the room remained polite, even as broad differences in points of view surfaced.

“I worry about where we’re going,” said Peter Ten Eyck II of Indian Ladder Farms. “We’re going to be waving dollar bills in the air hoping someone from the four corners of the world will feed us.” The owner of the fourth-generation orchard asked the Secretary to comment on the importance of local spending.

Vilsack pointed to the UDSA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, and mobile slaughterhouse units that are in development and in use to serve smaller farms. He named research on invasive species, but did not touch the third rail of valuing exports more than strengthening local economies.

That’s the conundrum of American farming. While all politics may be local, an awful lot of agricultural regulation and legislation happens at a federal level. How can national policy handle an industry that spans 50 states and any number of regional specialties, not to mention the organic vs. conventional divide and farms of vastly different sizes, with a one-size-fits-all approach? Vilsack was challenged to address this issue by some of the farmers in the room, a room that should be full of apples at this time of year but was empty thanks to a freak early-bloom, late-frost cycle this spring.

Crop insurance to cover that loss was a topic raised by Alan Grout, who owns Golden Harvest. There’s federal crop insurance for apples as well as almost every commodity. Rules governing that insurance have been rewritten, and orchardists who sell their apples directly are concerned that the new writing leaves no room to cover direct marketers. Vilsack as sured Grout and others that the matter would be brought up with the director of crop insurance.

Gianni Ortiz, however, was not satisfied with the answer to the question she raised. A long-time food advocate, Ortiz recently worked with the Regional Farm and Food Project (RFFP), and is now with FarmAssist Productions, an educational organization that seeks to invigorate farming through consumer knowledge and a variety of agricultural collaborations.

Ortiz asked a question about the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, which is now in the Senate. Vilsack stated that we’re all concerned about food safety and didn’t, Ortiz felt, tackle the topic of scale. Scale is very important on this issue because food safety regulations, involving massive equipment purchases, could be applied across the board, regardless of farm size. Food and farm advocates are pushing for amendments that will exempt producers of a smaller size from inclusion because the measures will be difficult, if not impossible, for many farms to apply.

“The way that we [at RFFP] classified a small farm was anything grossing $750,000 a year or less. Those numbers might sound big but they’re not,” said Ortiz by phone, following Friday’s meeting. “The other thing that was educational, if not deeply disturbing, is that Secretary Vilsack considers anything between 250K-gross and up as a large farm. And this is really helpful in understanding the complete lack of understanding on behalf of the USDA and the kinds of farms they’re dealing with in this region.”

Larry Eckhardt, president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, felt much more satisfied with the meeting. He raised questions about changing policies as farmers transition from commodity crops to specialty crops so that they will not be penalized. Eckhardt also asked if there were ways to measure crop insurance to see if farmers are farming to farm, or farming to file for insurance. Vilsack was knowledgeable and conversant about these matters. Eckhardt felt that the meeting was productive, naming the diversity of agriculture represented, from milk dairy to artisanal cheesemakers, apple growers and vegetable growers.

“All kinds of production techniques, from conventional to organic to biodynamic, were represented too, and everyone, I think, went away with the idea that they’re working for us,” Eckhardt said by phone. “It may be at a snail’s pace. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and three steps back. Still, I think they have a grasp of what’s happening in the agricultural sector.”

On the day of the meeting, the politicians and their handlers left through the sunny mouth of the barn, and the farmers walked out through a cavernous and nearly empty refrigerator.

Golden Harvest’s customers packed the parking lot and store, snapping up apples by the bag and bushel, buying dozens of cider donuts. The lackluster harvest was not obvious. Absent too from the customer’s view was the political entourage exiting the orchard, toting stories of upstate agriculture to D.C.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Of course we·re a co-sponsor·it·s about local stuff. And so, along with Honest Weight Food Co-op, we·re pleased to announce the Second Annual Local Harvest Festival, taking place from 1 to 6 on Sunday (Sept. 19) at Albany·s Washington Park Lake House. Enjoy a farmers-market-style event featuring local vendors, restaurants and artisans, local bands and more. Among the participants are the Beancake Company, serving akara, a Nigerian beancake; nuts from Delmar-based Our Daily Eats; Elderberry Mary·s home-grown and homemade jam; cookies from Vegan Creations (a Troy Farmers Market favorite); milk from Battenkill Valley Creamery; cheese and probiotic ice cream by Amazing Real Live Food; Catskill-based Grandpa Pete·s gourmet pasta sauce; Bettie·s Cup Cakes, and such local restaurants and businesses as Bros Tacos, New World Bistro, Casa Visco and Honest Weight Food Co-op. . . . Carney·s Tavern & Irish Pub (17 Main St., Ballston Lake) will hold its annual Halfway to St. Patrick·s Day party from 11:30 AM through the evening on Saturday (Sept. 18). The party features Irish Music by St. James Gate, Carney·s corned beef and cabbage, Reuben sandwiches, and Irish potato soup. Wear some green to offset the fall foliage. More info: 399-9926. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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