The Empire State Strikes Back: Senator Gillibrand Stands Up for Agriculture

Why New York’s junior senator could be the best hope for our nation’s broken food policy.

Gillibrand_beautiful-buffetIn late August, when New York’s U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand visited Quail Hill Farm on Long Island for a meet-and-greet over peach cobbler, farmer Scott Chaskey told the 100 or so assembled chefs, growers and other vote-with-your-fork types that when the farm’s community-supported agriculture program began more than two decades ago, so-called CSAs were a new concept in the United States. Despite exponential growth — today there are about 400 CSAs in New York State alone, and about 6,500 nationwide — “never would we have guessed,” said Chaskey, “that a senator would be interested in CSAs.”

The senators that New York sends to Washington have long shaped the national agenda — think of Robert F. Wagner (alongside fellow New Yorker President Franklin D. Roosevelt) orchestrating the New Deal, Robert F. Kennedy’s focus on civil rights or Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s interventions on urban renewal and foreign policy. Yet the phrases “the senator from New York” and “national agriculture policy” have seldom appeared in the same sentence.

Kirsten Gillibrand is hoping to change that.

When first elected to Congress in 2007 to represent New York’s 20th District, Gillibrand served on the House Committee on Agriculture, and when she was appointed to the Senate in 2009 — to fill the seat vacated when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State — she became the first New York senator in 41 years to join the Senate’s powerful Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. A 21-member body traditionally dominated by senators from the Midwest and South, the Agriculture Committee oversees the farm bill: the omnibus legislative package, rewritten every five years, that’s expected to outlay a trillion dollars over the next decade, overseeing everything from crop subsidies and slaughterhouse regulations to food stamps, land conservation and organic standards — effectively molding our nation’s food system.

Gillibrand represents tractor types, yes, but also urbanites. She understands that while there are only 36,000 farms left in the state — down from almost 150,000 at the end of World War II — agricultural policy impacts everyone who eats. Yet legislators from rural heartland states see the farm bill as their domain. The junior senator from New York has her work cut out for her.

New York’s upstate economy of farms, government and industry is a familiar one for Gillibrand. Her formative years were spent in the Capital Region, where she received a unique political education from her maternal grandmother, Polly Noonan. In 1937, Noonan, while working as a secretary at the Scenic Hudson Commission, met then-State Senator Erastus Corning 2nd, who headed the commission and was being groomed by the state Democratic machine to become Albany’s mayor. He soon did ascend to the mayor’s office and served from 1941 to his death in 1983.

Polly Noonan was married, but she remained Mayor Corning’s closest political confidant for four decades. He was estranged from his children and spent little time with his wife, instead having his own recliner in the Noonan living room. There’s no conclusive evidence of a romantic liaison between Corning and Gillibrand’s grandmother, though rumors titillated Albany for decades. Governor Mario Cuomo, who clerked in Albany’s court of appeals in the 1950s, described the capital’s hierarchy to the New York Times thusly: “Corning was the de facto leader. Polly was the leader.” A half dozen members of the Noonan family ended up on the Albany city or county payroll.

In an interview with New York magazine, Gillibrand spoke of helping her grandmother in political work with an occasional prankish twist: “We’d do typical stuff like putting bumper stickers on cars,” she said. “Sometimes, you are putting your own candidate’s bumper sticker over somebody else’s candidate’s bumper sticker.”

She has described her mother, Penny, as similarly dogged, whether in politics, law, pie-making or raising Gillibrand and her two siblings. An avid hunter, each November Penny would head to the woods to shoot the family’s Thanksgiving turkey.

Gillibrand attended Dartmouth and summer interned at the office of then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato, an associate of her father’s. After law school at UCLA, she made her first successful career as a Manhattan corporate defense lawyer at the white-shoe firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell. In 2000, Gillibrand took a position in Washington at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under then-Secretary Andrew Cuomo. When George W. Bush defeated Al Gore that fall, she returned to corporate law, but convinced the partners at Boies, Schiller & Flexner to allow her to work in the Albany office and prepare for a potential electoral run. She took up residence in the town of Hudson, and in 2006 defeated Republican incumbent John Sweeney for the congressional seat in New York’s Republican-leaning 20th District, extending from the upper Hudson Valley to the North Country.

In the House, Gillibrand laid down the foundations for both her focus on farming and upstate political success: she gained a coveted seat on the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee. And on the afternoon in January 2009 that she was appointed to the Senate, she made clear her intention: to secure a seat on the Agriculture Committee for the Senate.

Americans might wonder why Gillibrand should focus on agriculture, when none of the nation’s “Big Five” commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton) plays a serious role in the Empire State economy.

But while New York isn’t a hub for mega-farms growing endless acres of soybeans or wheat, our state is among the nation’s top five producers of such mainstays as milk, apples, grapes, pears, cabbage, squash, pumpkins and maple syrup. (“The average New Yorker may not know that,” Gillibrand noted.)

Moreover, our metropolis has enormous agricultural importance, as the urban appetite for locally grown, sustainably raised ingredients has brought about one of the most vibrant local food infrastructures in the country. New York State is now home to 827 organic farms — the fourth highest in the nation — and 647 farmers markets, second only to California.

Many small, diverse New York farms are flourishing in spite of decades of federal legislation that has openly favored and funded industrial agribusiness. New York receives just $15 per person of federal funding for agriculture, while Iowa (home to only twice as many farms) receives 34 times that amount: $510 per person.

“A lot of ag policy isn’t written for New York ag,” said Gillibrand. “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.”

Senator Gillibrand can speak the language of the Slow Food movement, championing a system in which small, sustainable farms sell their crops to local residents, restaurants and relief organizations to create a value-added multiplier effect that ripples throughout the economy. But she also cleverly incorporates a national security idiom more familiar in the halls of Congress. “I don’t ever want to get my food from as far away as China,” Gillibrand said in the summer of 2011, as food-tainting scandals made headlines. “We have a wholesome food economy in New York and we want to support and enhance that. And in a world where … terrorism threatens our food supply, preserving regional production is actually a national security issue.”

Since the 1970s, Washington’s message to American farmers has been exactly the opposite: “Get big or get out.” USDA subsidies have vastly expanded production of commodity crops, which, in turn, become cheap animal feed and processed foods. The policies continue today: From 1995 to 2010, the largest 10 percent of farms in the country received 76 percent of government crop subsidies. Sixty-two percent of farms received nothing. In 2010, subsidies for corn, wheat and soybeans alone accounted for 75 percent of all agricultural subsidies.

Gillibrand, the newest member of the Senate Ag Committee, is rooting for a very different group of food producers: upstate yogurt makers, small-batch picklers, vintners and distillers. And, of course, growers of so-called specialty crops — like broccoli and carrots.

“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.”

Cesare Casella, chef of Salumeria Rosi on the Upper West Side, dean of Italian studies at the International Culinary Center in SoHo and senior manager at the Center for Discovery, an upstate facility where people with disabilities enjoy a gorgeous working farm and are nourished by its harvests, says Gillibrand understands the benefits of a local food economy. “We showed her several programs at the Center including our research and development in farming and nutrition, and in fact she loved it,” said Casella. “Our holistic approach is something she believes to be transformative.”

According to David Haight, New York State Director of the American Farmland Trust, part of what has made Gillibrand effective is her ability to see the big picture — for both the state and the country. “As a Democratic woman legislator, she has proven able to win over conservative Republican farmers by working aggressively on issues such as milk pricing and immigration reform [for farmworkers]. This is no small task. But, she has also proven adept at leading on nutrition issues that appeal to urban communities, such as school food.”

“Kirsten is always interested in discussing new concepts to further agricultural interests,” said Joe Gergela, head of the Long Island Farm Bureau. These include a number of programs off the farm, such as Gergela’s work with the senator to get teens working at farmers markets and to assist Long Island food banks.

Last year, Gillibrand called on the FDA to implement a standard identity for honey to protect domestic producers from deceptive practices by foreign companies.

Craft distiller Ralph Erenzo of the Hudson Valley–based Tuthilltown Spirits has even bent the senator’s ear about a European Union law that only allows spirits to be called whiskey if they’ve aged for more than three years. Gillibrand is taking up the issue with American trade officials and hopes to again make American spirits available to European barkeeps.

And she helped a vegetable farm and educational center out on Shelter Island get federal funding for land preservation in the form of something called “the purchase of development rights.” As Sylvester Manor farmer Bennett Konesni explains, “Gillibrand’s office was really helpful in sort of encouraging the different agencies to resolve their issues. It was just about communication, and she and her office were able to lean on the right people to move it through the process. It was a great example of government working.”

But the big game is the farm bill. Congress expected to have a new version signed into law before fall, but the House leadership declined to bring its bill up for a vote. While farm bill negotiations have always been arduous, an analysis by Politico of the last 50 years of farm bill horse-trading showed that it has never been this tortured, this stuck in the mud. As of this writing, we are operating without a farm bill: The 2008 bill expired on September 30, and Congressional soothsayers are trying to divine if a bill can be passed during a lame duck session after the November elections, if the 2008 bill will get a year’s extension or if negotiations will stall even further.

Part of the idea behind broadening the farm bill (Michael Pollan would like to see it rechristened the “food bill”) is to consider eaters’ interests, not just farmers’. Senator Gillibrand’s advocacy for real food, grown outside the industrial agriculture model, has her standing athwart the farm bill’s history, and has placed her at odds with a number of her Senate colleagues. Yet, despite her junior status on the committee, Gillibrand has managed to influence debate on key components of the bill. She worked to defend programs that, since the late 1990s, have shifted a portion of the funds subsidizing animal feed and other commodity crops toward programs supporting fresh fruits and vegetables people actually eat.

The 2008 farm bill — with a significant push from then-New York Senator Clinton — saw the first significant funds allocated to value-added market development grants and other programs assisting vintners, small-scale cheesemakers, brewers and the like. “These are all new sources of money available to growers outside of the Midwest,” said Jim Tresize of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, noting that the program has been particularly helpful to winemakers in California and New York. The as-yet-unpassed 2012 bill would continue to support such programs, but a year extension would cut off funding, because only the larger provisions of the bill are covered in an extension.

For the 2012 bill, Gillibrand supported legislation that helped create the first crop insurance plans and disaster assistance for fruit and produce growers, similar to protections long available to the industrial producers of corn, wheat, cotton, soy and rice, and setting the precedent for dismantling the entrenched favortism of only these big five crops. Consider the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee across New York in 2011. Despite catastrophic damage, those farms “didn’t have any crop insurance because they would never get a payout…because of how the policy’s been written,” said Gillibrand. “It was largely written for commodity crops.”

As the 2012 farm bill approached, Gillibrand held listening sessions — at organic farms and yogurt plants, filled with 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).

While Gillibrand is working to make federal ag policy more helpful to small New York farms, one enormous program within the farm bill is well-known in cities: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps.

Gillibrand’s effort to avoid cuts to SNAP in this year’s farm bill, at a time in which the lagging economy has increased the need for nutritional aid, has put her at odds with self-proclaimed budget hawks and the increasingly vocal contingent of the Republican party that decries government assistance as socialism.

At a time of high unemployment and poverty rates, Gillibrand has pushed relentlessly to expand the ability of state and community governments to provide food to the poor. Thinking of the 25 million Americans who live in “food deserts,” Gillibrand pushed a provision that would provide $125 million in grants and loans to help bring these communities more grocery stores, farmers markets and other healthful alternatives to the siren call of fast food. And she has been the most vocal legislative opponent of slashing food assistance programs, earning her the epithet of “Food Stamps Queen” from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

In June, Gillibrand proposed an amendment to the Senate bill that would restore the $4.5 billion in cuts to SNAP by reducing subsidies for insurance companies that offer crop insurance. The Senate rejected the amendment by a vote of 66 to 33. As of this writing, the $4.5 billion cuts remain in the Senate bill, and Gillibrand may have to set her sights instead on resisting the more draconian $33 billion cuts to food stamps in the House’s bill.

“Gillibrand has played a very courageous role this time around,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, the leading nonprofit lobbying for farm bill reform. “Her amendment helped set the stage for several other insurance reform amendments that did win. We consider Gillibrand as a very important emerging leader for the food movement in Congress.”

Is the food movement for real? Michael Pollan’s October Times piece asked precisely that question, noting that while Americans are increasingly changing the way they eat, it’s unclear whether such actions will coalesce into real political change. But Senator Gillibrand is banking on the fact that her constituents will connect the dots on healthcare, climate change, job creation and even homeland security — all tied closely to food policy. And in the meantime, she’s already hard at work.

As her August visit to Quail Hill Farm drew to a close, Gillibrand’s staff checked their watches. The Senator was expected at a lunch on the other side of the Long Island Sound. But before departing, she donned a sun hat and joined the crowd for a tour of the farm’s bee yard. When the beekeeper lifted a hive’s cover and bees poured out, everyone hesitated. “Bees are your constituents, too, Senator,” someone shouted out to laughter. “I know,” the Senator replied with a smile, and stepped closer to peer into the honey-filled hive, undaunted.

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.