Tending the Organic Policy Garden
June 14, 2010, I arrived at the west end of the National Mall in D.C. for my first day of employment advising the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture on organic farming and localizing food systems. It was quite a leap for me. After spending 25 years of advocacy and agitation as an organic farmer and non-profit policy wonk, I was about to be assimilated into the Obama Administration. Later that day, I sat outside in the recently inaugurated “People’s Garden,” a patch of reclaimed parking pavement just becoming a working garden of food and flowers.
In that garden, I looked to find inspiration for my new task: cultivating organic agriculture policy and projects across the breadth of USDA beyond the NOP regulatory boundaries. That’s what I did for the next four and half years: weeding, planting, tilling and harvesting in more than a dozen different patches of varied fertility, in some cases still with toxic residues, in some places yielding healthy results and suitable for proud display.
As the first person with such an assignment within USDA, I was obviously stretched pretty thin. I quickly found that while the numbers of people who understood and valued organic and sustainable agriculture in public service were growing (and have grown more during the past six years), we still needed a lot more people on the team, at all levels. It’s especially undersized relative to the size of the organic economy and the critical potential for organic agriculture to address the systemic challenges our planet faces.
The “insurmountable opportunities” for the federal organic policy garden required then—as they do now—a small army of organic experts and allies. We need, and can deploy, a bigger force, both working change from within institutions and influencing from outside the world views of those who are in government service.
I’m now six months out from the end of my term at USDA, back on my farm and catching up with myself and community. I’m beginning to work on distilling my Washington experiences and finding ways to transmit the lessons. One such lesson is already completely clear: organic, regenerative, agroecological food systems have much deeper soil and wider territory to claim within our public institutions, but it won’t happen without a lot more policy gardeners toiling at the task.
I’m not (only) appealing for people in the organic industry to take a tour of duty in Washington. There are manifold ways to participate in conquering territory in the policy jungle. For every role in the organic sector, there are needs for service on advisory boards, expert panels, and other forms of stakeholder groups.
OTA continues to be an effective and growing force in the policy arena, with its membership activities, political alliances, and service contributions all playing a part. Some other public interest organizations have organic advancement on their agenda, and such groups are also a great vehicle for participation. Think of a swarm of organic pollinators and other beneficial organisms working on all those fronts in the organic policy garden. Be a part of the swarm.
As far as the heaviest trench work in the garden, that’s where the biggest change happens. No matter what happens in U.S. elections, the advancement of organic agriculture in public policy will be directly correlated with the presence of organic-sector-trained professionals in policymaking and implementing. Whether your expertise is production, procurement, formulation, distribution, or communications, there will be need for that in the context of federal agency service. Mid-career and senior members of the organic sector can and should consider preparing for such service. The phrase “government revolving door” has a malignant connotation, but that is not at all always deserved. It is possible to step over from industry and commerce into government and still be able to distinguish private gain from public interest in pursuit of the latter. That this often fails to happen is not a reason to abandon the field to those who project a different set of values into the practice of public policy.
While the mission of cultivating organic values into public policy may require some self-sacrifice, there are positive rewards. I found satisfaction in converting diverse opportunities into gains for organic farmers and food systems. Sometimes it was only stopping or slowing down something that was not such a good idea, but that was a good reason to be there. I was inspired by a number of incredibly smart and ridiculously hard-working people who were on their own tour of duty. Returning now to my home and farming community, I have a whole new perspective on the possibilities and payoffs within the organic policy garden.
From this vantage, I wonder who will next take up the spade and pruners to tend the growing organic policy garden. Will it be you? //