Morning rush hour in DC…it was quite the experience. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the crush of people, but we hopped on the Metro all the same..pushing our way into the crowded car. After a short ride, we found ourselves next to the National Mall, the capitol to our right and the Washington monument to our left. Given the intensity of the cold rain, we didn’t spend much time enjoying the view though…we hoofed it straight into the USDA headquarters.
We were greeted by Ms. Kathryn Hill, Constituent Affairs for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Office of Communications. Ms. Hill is one of those people you instantly know to be a generous and friendly person and she made all of us immediately feel at home. We talked story for a bit, and then were treated to presentations from the staff of different programs.
While each presenter was extremely interesting, my interest was particularly captured by Mr. Ephraim Leibtag, Assistant Administrator of the Economic Research Service. He discussed how the Economic Research Service (ERS) gathered information about the agricultural sector through interviews and market research. What I truly appreciate about this service is that it is politically neutral. Mr. Leibtag mentioned how the ERS is headed by career employees rather than political appointees, thus separating hard economic data from the messiness of politics. This is important because it allows the public and stakeholders to trust that the information provided is accurate and not motivated by political ideology. The data collected by the ERS is critical for lawmakers to devise policies, such as the Farm Bill, that will enhance and support the agricultural sector at the Federal level.
The other USDA speaker that really grabbed my interest was Ms. Terri Nintemann, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Data Integration and Food Protection (ODIFP) in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). That long title means that Ms. Nintemann is responsible for programs that protect against accidental and intentional alteration of foods. What particularly grabbed my attention was the concept of Food Defense, which is essentially when intentional injury is caused through the food supply. The agency has the ability to remove these food items from the food supply or prevent their importation into the United States of America. This sort of threat to our national security just isn’t on most people’s radar, but I’m glad someone has the foresight, and ability, to keep watch.
I don’t want to leave you thinking that the other speakers were uninteresting, quite the opposite. But for the sake of time and the space I have for writing, I’d just like to thank Dr. Bill Doley Government Affairs Specialist with the USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Service, Dr. Saleia Afele-Faamuli, National Program Manager with the USDA’s Alaska Native-Serving and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions Education Program, and Mr. Charles Parrot Deputy Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Specialty Crops Program. These folks oversee programs that keep the food that we all eat safe, make sure that producers engage in a level playing field and promote educational opportunities to enhance our food supply.
If it sounds like we spent a lot of time at the USDA..we did! But it was time well spent, and clearly I had fun because time flew. Following the presentations, we enjoyed lunch at The People’s Cafe the USDA cafeteria. When I hear the word cafeteria, I think back to school with soggy pizza and tater tots. Nothing could be further from the truth though, the lunch was gourmet. I enjoyed a fantastic salad, stuffed calamari and some great coffee.
Following our visit to the USDA, we jumped back out into the rain. Fortunately for me, street vendors were on hand with umbrellas! For a mere $5, I was dry for the rest of the day. We traveled over to the American Farmland Trust (AFT) office where we met Mr. John Larson, Executive Director of Programs.
Simply put, American Farmland Trust is an organization that seeks to keep farmers on farmland. As anyone who has spent time in Hawaii knows, this is a major issue for our state. While the AFT doesn’t operate directly in Hawaii, we still benefit from the advocacy they conduct. In a nutshell, the AFT is focused on protecting farmlands by identifying long term trends that remove farmland from production and providing accurate information to policy makers. They supplement these efforts with educational programs that expand the farming community by bring in new talent.
Our final stop of the day brought us to the Croplife America office. We met with Mr. Jeffrey Case, Senior Director of Government Affairs, Ms. Whitney Gray, Communications Coordinator and Mr. Beau Greenwood, Executive Vice President all of Croplife America. We were also joined by Mr. Dudley Hoskins, Public Policy Council for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) and Mr. Gene Harrington, Director, of Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). Croplife America, BIO and NASDA all have similar, but slightly different methods of promoting modern agriculture. To be absolutely clear, by modern agriculture I am referring to the genetic modification of plants. Their message was simple: The general public doesn’t understand the safety record, regulation or science behind biotechnology. They focused primarily on the message that biotechnology (ie GM or GMO) plants do not present any special or unique risks, reduce chemical inputs and can help provide for the ever increasing human population of our planet. The biggest challenge, from their perspective, was educating the public about the actual versus the perceived nature of their industry.
From the perspective of Class XV, we feel that there is both the space and the need for all types of farming. No one should be excluded, and each farmer should focus on a production method that produces a safe, healthy and profitable food product. Because only 2% of Americans are farmers, we need a “big tent” mindset that doesn’t exclude or marginalize any farming methods that are socially and environmentally responsible. We, as an agricultural community, need to be united to be able to advocate for our needs with the limited resources at our disposal. If you are one of the 98%, take the time to learn about the issues, don’t rely on only one source of information and THANK A FARMER!