A Day in the Life of a (Sustainable) Ag Lobbyist

photo courtesy of Pleasantview Farm (USDA/Flickr)

Margaret Riche is GRACE’s Public Service Scholar. Riche is in her final year at Hunter College, where she is studying public service, creative writing and is participating in the interdisciplinary Thomas Hunter Honors program.

"Lobbyist." It’s one of those words so often spoken with contempt, carrying as it does connotations of mega-corporations and industry leaders wielding undue power over government. One is hard-pressed to think of it in a positive light. But while industry lobbyists may indeed wield too much influence over US lawmakers, it is also important for concerned individuals to remember that we too have the right to lobby. And though we may not have the resources as large corporations do, regular citizens still can and should meet with state and federal leaders to discuss important legislative issues.

I write this after having spent a day in New York’s State Legislative Office Building in Albany with about 100 other advocates for the third annual No Farms, No Food Rally. Organized by the American Farmland Trust, we gathered in the capital, representing an eclectic mix of urban and rural farmers, environmental activists, anti-hunger advocates and food-related business owners. Despite our varied backgrounds, we all answered AFT’s call to Albany to "urge state leaders to strengthen the farm and food economy, protect farmland and the environment and increase access to nutritious food grown in New York."

My day began at 7:00 am as I boarded a bus in New York City’s Union Square with about 20 others. After arriving in Albany, bleary eyed but excited, we gathered with others from all over the state for an introductory meeting at which at which we discussed our legislative goals, which included:

  • Increased funding for the Environmental Protection Fund(EPF). This year’s budget provides the EPF with the same amount as last year: $134 million. We asked that legislators adopt measures to boost EPF funding, like increased allocation of revenue from the state’s Real Estate Transfer Tax, authorizing the use of bonding by the Environmental Facilities Corporation and enactment of S 5403- A, an allocation of funds from the Bottle Bill.
  • Increased funding for the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, which works to increase the quality of food provided at Emergency Food Release Organizations (EFRO).
  • Support for an expansion of the New York State Linked Deposit Program to include farmers, so that that they can have access to reduced-rate financing.
  • Expansion of New York’s Fresh Connect program to increase the availability of farmers' markets across the state, and to facilitate the use of food stamp benefits at local farmers' markets.
  • Support for the Buy from the Backyard Bill, which would require state agencies to buy 20% of their food from New York state food producers/processors.

We also thanked our officials for their work, particularly for not reducing the Environmental Protection Fund from last year’s budget, despite the challenging economic climate. We were also given tips toward effective lobbying, and directed to make our stories personal, and to relate how the legislation we were discusssing directly impacted our lives. We were given detailed information packets and sent on our way."

The composition of my group effectively illustrates the diverse nature of food advocacy. It included:

  • John Halsey,  group leader, founder of the Peconic Land Trust, a non-profit organization working to protect Eastern Long Island’s farms, natural lands and heritage.
  • Jennifer Small, New York farmer, major gifts officer of the American Farmland Trust
  • Bonnie Mairs, originally from Minnesota, NYC AFT supporter
  • Carrie Blackburn, Development Associate at New York non-profit Just Food, an amazing organization that connects local farmers with the resources and support they need to make fresh, local food available to New Yorkers through CSAs, city farms, and food pantries.

After introductions, we made rounds to the offices of Senator Dean Skelos and Senator Kenneth LaValle. In both instances, we spoke to staff. During our time there, aids dutifully took notes. Halsey began by giving a brief overview of the issues. In reference to the Buy from The Backyard Act, Small spoke articulately about the (ironic) difficulty of obtaining New York cider and milk for the day’s event. She described how the EPF protects her farm, which is her "only asset."  Blackburn spoke  about how the  Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program provides funding for Local Produce Link, a partnership between United Way of NYC and Just Food, that brings fresh vegetables from local farms to NYC food pantries. Small interjected that she remembered being in one of these food pantries and seeing the excited look on children and parents' faces when the farm-fresh produce arrived. The proposed funding of 29.7 million is actually less than last year’s budget, and at a time when demand for these services is increasing. Bonnie Mair then spoke of her 10-year experience campaigning for the New York State Returnable Container Act, better known as the Bottle Bill. She argued that now that we have access to these funds, they should be used for their intended purpose: to protect the environment. Articulate, yet down to earth, everyone’s experiences brought a human perspective to the legislative issues.

During lunch, we heard from speakers about the importance of a healthy food system for economic development, job creation and the environment. Former New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, spoke of how Governor Cuomo has been an ally to farmers, particularly due to his understanding of their economic value. (For every $1 invested in the EPF, there is a $7 return for New York). We also heard from representatives from the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, yogurt producer Chobani, emergency food non-profit St. John’s Bread and Life Program, Fleisher’s Grassfed & Organic Meats and The Berry Patch of Stone Wall Hill Farm.

After the final speakers, my team headed to the office of Assembly Member Robert Sweeney, who represents Suffolk County (where I grew up). During the meeting, I learned from Halsey and Sweeney’s aid that Long Island has the most intensively studied and thus best understood water system in the country, that aquifers are our sole source of drinking water, that nitrogen from pesticides is polluting the water and how stream runoff is killing wildlife. Small mentioned the success of a pilot program she is working on with a more environmentally friendly, slow-release fertilizer for sweet corn.

Our next and last stop was Jose Peralta’s office, where we learned that the Senator is considering co-sponsoring s5403-A, the bill that would increase funding to the EPF from the allocated Bottle Bill funds. This was truly great news! We all delivered our by-then well-rehearsed pitches while the aid dutifully took notes.

Unfortunately, our "debriefing" was cut somewhat short due to time constraints. As the steady trickle of advocates returned to the meeting rooms to collect their things, we were vigorously thanked for our work and told it seemed like we all had "positive, productive meetings." New friends hugged and exchanged numbers as they prepared to leave. As I began to head toward the bus, I heard a speaker from the podium bid us goodbye and remind that we have "friends in Albany."

My time in the state capital showed me the importance of urban-rural solidarity. I heard from amazing people involved in the food movement and I was shown how well-informed and friendly political staff can be. Of the event, my new friend Carrie had this to say:
Meeting with my representatives through the No Farms, No Food Rally allowed me to really participate in the democratic process. Wednesday’s rally was a powerful reminder for politicians that voters from all across the political spectrum really do care about protecting our environment, keeping small farms in business and making sure we all have access to fresh, local food.

While I agree with Carrie that we did send a powerful message to politicians, it was a disappointment to not have met with any real representatives. I felt productive, and I made some important connections, but I will wait until the budget is passed in March to see which of our "friends in Albany" really heard us.