Organic Roots are spreading in Washington

From the East Wing of the White House to the Halls of Congress, organic is spreading its roots in the nation’s capital. Today’s crop of organic influencers is making a difference in agricultural policy, federal legislation, international affairs, food and health guidelines, public research approaches, and environmental issues. The number of organic advocates in Washington has probably never been greater, including individuals with genuine down-to-earth roots in certified organic agriculture. In this edition, we are profiling a handful of these folks who are making their voices heard. These hard-working and committed individuals show how organic truly is seeding changes—in the food we eat, the way we think, and the future of our world. 

Lessons from Organic, Applied Globally

Darci Vetter, Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

Ambassador Darci Vetter says that being raised on an organic farm in central Nebraska has given her a leg up in tough international trade negotiations.

“Growing up in an organic family in the 1970s made me really resourceful,” Vetter told the Organic Report. “Dad learned about organic through trial and error, and international trade policy is remarkably similar … you have to be flexible, and you keep trying and plugging away at it.” 

When Vetter was growing up in rural Nebraska, kids on her school bus used to tease her about her dad’s farm. It didn’t look like other farms. Darci’s family was one of the first families in Nebraska to practice organic farming. Her grandfather Don began farming organically in the early 1950s, and her father David came back to the family farm after college in 1975, and helped get the farm certified organic in 1978. In 1979, the Vetters established The Grain Place (now Grain Place Foods) to process organic grains. Today, the business processes and sells organic grains and ingredients throughout the world.

Vetter says she was raised with a keen sense of environmental stewardship: “The environment and taking care of the environment were something we talked about a lot as a family.” And she says that organic agriculture and the conservation of natural resources were an integral part of that conversation.

The intersection of agriculture and the environment and international relations has been a primary interest for Vetter since her college days and studying abroad in Israel in which she saw first-hand a bitter dispute play out over water rights. In her early days at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), she helped negotiate environmental provisions in a trade agreement with Chile, facilitated the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and resolved key agricultural issues in the process. As International Trade Advisor for the Senate Finance Committee, she was responsible for trade issues relating to agriculture, the environment and labor. Then, as Deputy Under Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Vetter was closely involved in the successful negotiations for the organic equivalency arrangements with the European Union, Japan and Korea.

Appointed to her current position at USTR in July 2014, Vetter most recently led successful negotiations leading to the U.S.-Switzerland organic equivalency accord, and is now concentrated on resolving remaining differences involving agriculture in negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) international trade agreement.

With her task to expand opportunities for all of U.S. agriculture and to maintain the integrity of U.S. agricultural products, Vetter says that her organic background has helped her understand the need to preserve the identity of a product—whether it is a brand or an intellectual property … or organic. She also observes that at the negotiating table, there is a general desire for populations to have more knowledge about the food they are consuming. She notes that the organic system of traceability, labeling and identity preservation can be carried over into different systems and incorporated into future trade agreements.

“My track record of working for all of agriculture stands,” says Vetter. “My experience in organic has been an advantage, as conventional agriculture begins to address some of the issues that organic has dealt with for a long time. Those lessons can be carried over into international trade issues.”

Working the Fields and the Senate organically

Jon Tester, U.S. Senator, Montana

Senator Jon Tester says going organic probably saved his Montana farm, and enabled him to now be a champion for rural America in the United States Senate. Tester practices what he preaches almost every day in his fields when he’s not being a lawmaker in the District of Columbia. 

“Organic agriculture has given us an opportunity to make a good living through agriculture production,” Tester said in an e-mail to the Organic Report. “I knew I was going to be a farmer since I was eight years old. My understanding of production agriculture and where food comes from is direct, and is probably greater than anybody else I serve with in the U.S. Senate.”

Tester and his wife farm the same land near the town of Big Sandy, Montana, that was homesteaded by his grandparents in 1912. Tester started out as a conventional grain farmer, but in the 1980s realized two things: that his operation had to make more money by either becoming bigger or by adding value to the products they were raising, and that he and his wife were having health problems as a result of the herbicides and other chemicals they were spraying on their fields.

Around that same time, the young farmer was presented with an opportunity to grow organic durum for a good price, so he and his wife decided to take the organic plunge. They first transitioned 160 acres of their land to organic, and by 1983 had converted their entire farm to certified organic. They now farm 1,800 acres of organically certified spring wheat (including durum), safflower, lentils, buckwheat, fenugreek, millet, mustard, and alfalfa. The former conventional producer has been a respected leader in the organic movement since the late 1980s. 

Tester sees organic farming as “an important piece of our food production system.” He is concerned that more young people are not going into farming, and he thinks that organic “allows particularly small farmers to be able to succeed and grow and be not only sustainable agriculturally but sustainable financially.”  He is also worried that the U.S. food system and agricultural sector have become so highly concentrated. He sees that trend mostly in the conventional market, and he believes there is “true competition in the organic market.”

Tester was elected to his second term in the Senate in 2012. Prior to representing the Montana populace on a national level, he served in the Montana State Senate for eight years. In the U.S. Senate, Tester serves on the Veterans’ Affairs, Homeland Security, Indian Affairs, and Banking and Appropriations Committees.

“My understanding of production agriculture and where food comes from is direct, and is probably greater than anybody else I serve with in the U.S. Senate.”

- Senator Jon Tester

As a U.S senator, Tester has made a priority of revamping American farm policy and changing federal farm subsidy programs to steer money to more young farmers and small producers. Among the legislation he has introduced or supported has been a bill to aid farmers who want to transition to organic and to maintain funding through the Organic Certification Cost-Share Program. He introduced the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (BFROA) to institute a broad spectrum of policies to help build local and regional food systems. Several of these policies were incorporated into the current Farm Bill. He promoted the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act to require FDA to clearly label genetically engineered foods.

Tester appreciates the practical and real-life perspective that organic has given him in shaping national agricultural policy. 

“The fact of the matter is, because of organic agriculture I have seen what crop rotations and soil building can do to the soil. And I’ve seen what a tremendous advantage we can get connecting consumers with producers.”

An Organic Rebel Goes to Washington

Chellie Pingree, U.S. Congresswoman, Maine

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree says that farming organically since she was barely out of her teens has not only made her unafraid of hard work but unafraid to stand up for her convictions. And that’s important in the Halls of Congress.

“I got an excellent start and ended up with my own organic farm in the 1970s and have farmed on and off ever since then,” Pingree e-mailed to the Organic Report. “I have seen both the change in farming practices and the amazing growth in the market for organically grown food and sustainable farming. I find it very helpful to be able to advocate for public policy in these areas and use my practical experiences as a guide.”

Pingree was an idealistic teenager from Minnesota when she first landed on North Haven, a tiny island off the coast of Maine, and began raising chickens with her boyfriend in 1970. She wanted to be a part of the back-to-land movement, and she left the island for only a few years to go to the College of the Atlantic and study under noted agricultural researcher and organic expert Eliot Coleman. 

After college, she and her husband returned to North Haven and ran a small organic farm, selling their produce at the local farmers’ markets. She also raised sheep, and in 1981 started North Island Yarn, a cottage industry of local knitters. She and her husband still manage a 200-acre certified organic farm on the island, raising a variety of crops, livestock and poultry, and supporting a small organic creamery.

As an early advocate and producer of organic, Pingree has long been interested in food and how it’s grown, and she raised her three children to appreciate the origins of the food they ate. Now she sees consumers throughout the country wanting to know “what’s in their food and to have healthier choices than ever before.” 

She notes that 20 years ago, organic was considered a fringe idea, but says that even with the progress that has been made, U.S. food and farming policy “is far behind what consumers are looking for and what many farmers need.”

Elected to the Maine State Senate in 1992, Pingree was chosen to be the Maine Senate Majority Leader in 1996. From 2003 to 2007, she was National President and CEO of Common Cause, a non-partisan citizen activist group. In 2008, Pingree was elected to Congress. She is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, where she also sits on the committee’s subcommittees on Agriculture and Rural Development and on Interior and Environment.

An important mission of hers as a federal lawmaker has been to improve the nation’s food and farm system, support local farms, invest in regional food systems, and give all consumers better access to nutritious food. She has introduced a bipartisan bill to help schools modernize and expand their kitchens, and to provide training on how to cook fresh meals from scratch. She advocated for increased funding for research into the effects of overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, and was a vocal opponent of the bill to ban state GMO labeling laws.

Pingree sees many challenges to the U.S. food system and agricultural sector: from water shortages in high-producing agricultural areas to rising concerns over conventional agriculture’s use of herbicides and pesticides. But she sees “great possibilities” for organic farmers, and says it is critical that organic continues to develop more sustainable farming practices.

“I have seen both the change in farming practices and the amazing growth in the market for organically grown food and sustainable farming.”

-U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree

Choosing Organic for her Life and her Life’s Work

Laura Batcha, CEO/Executive Director, Organic Trade Association

Laura Batcha has done all things organic—from raising organic crops, selling at famers’ markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, having her own small organic business, working for a multinational organization, and now serving as the head of the leading organic association in the United States. And she’s had a great time.

“I love it all—the good guys doing the good stuff,” Batcha told the Organic Report.

When Batcha was fresh out of college, she went to work on a certified organic farm in Santa Cruz, California. It was one of the first organic farms in the area—about 20 acres of vegetables. She worked in the fields. She also managed field harvesting in the morning, field planting in the afternoon, and green house planting. Every day she and the dozen employees on the farm—other young adults from all over the world—would sit down, have lunch together and talk about the emerging organic movement.

“From that point on, I’ve worked in the organic industry in one way or another,” said Batcha. “The actual farming was really fun, very hard work but very rewarding. Organic is the only kind of farming I know.”

Batcha eventually moved back to the East Coast where her family had roots, and she ran a small certified organic herb botanical farm, Green Mountain Herbs, in Vermont. She became an expert in medicinal herbal extracts and processed her products on the farm, thus obtaining both an organic producer certificate and an organic processor certificate. Her business grew from local markets to local stores.

Then she debuted her products on the national scene at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, and it was a game-changer. Business exploded, and the company grew to become one the largest certified organic producers of medicinal herbs and extracts on the East Coast. Batcha sold the company to Tom’s of Maine in 1999, where she then worked for a decade in various positions in product and business development and strategic development. But she still kept her toes in the dirt, splitting the farm off when she sold to Tom’s and transitioning it back to organic vegetable production.

"When I started out in organic, we had to figure out infrastructure, and how to ship organic products safely—how to manage the organic supply chain and maintain the integrity of organic,” said Batcha. “Organic was definitely growing in popularity, but the industry was still developing the federal regulations that now guide the sector.”

In 2008, Batcha joined the Organic Trade Association as Director of Marketing and Public Relations, was promoted to Executive Vice President, and named CEO and Executive Director of OTA in January of 2014. “This was my first foray into the organic policy side, but that being said, I lived through and experienced first-hand the maturing of the industry and development of many of today’s organic regulations and policies.”

“When I started out in organic, we had to figure out infrastructure, and how to ship organic products safely-how to manage the organic supply chain and maintain the integrity of organic.”

- Laura Batcha

Under Batcha’s tenure as head of OTA, the association has increased its presence and advocacy for organic in the nation’s capital, the Farmers Advisory Council has enlarged and strengthened, consumer education efforts about organic have been boosted, new resources to help U.S. organic producers connect to the global marketplace have been developed, and OTA membership has increased as demand for organic continues to break new records every year.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for all of us in the organic industry,” says Batcha. “There are lots of challenges ahead for organic, but also tremendous opportunity. I’m proud to be leading this great group, and I’m glad that all my organic experience can translate now into my work with organic producers, companies of all sizes, and critical policy issues.”

Nutrition Policy Meets the Organic Plow

Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of Let’s Move and The White House’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy

Debra Eschmeyer’s first strong memory of food was, in her words, “gross and traumatic.” The youngest of seven children, Eschmeyer grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio, and at five years old witnessed a cow being slaughtered. 

“It really brought the farm and food system full circle home for me at a very young age,” Eschmeyer said in an interview a few years ago. “It was the first time I truly started to appreciate how much work it took to fuel society, and what it meant and how much honor it took to bring something to the plate.”

Eschmeyer says that she became familiar at a young age of all the hard work that goes into growing food. Driving the tractor, milking cows, tending to calves and other farm chores when other kids might have been off at the movies or at the local swimming pool were not always her choice, but it was a background that she grew to appreciate as she realized she wanted to shape her career around food and farm policies, educating kids about good nutrition, and instilling a higher value on our food.

“If we care about growing a healthy generation of kids, we have to think and look long-term, and we have to take a broader view than just what's on the tray when instituting policy and programs.”

-Debra Eschmeyer

“Food is joy. Food is community. Food is health. Food is part of the solution,” says Eschmeyer.

Wanting to do humanitarian work on an international basis when she finished college, Eschmeyer traveled to China and the Philippines and viewed the struggles of subsistence farmers while working for Rotary International and Conservation in International. Then in 2010, she cofounded FoodCorps, a national AmeriCorps service program that sends volunteers to needy schools and communities across the country to teach kids about healthy foods and where it comes from, build school gardens, and bring wholesome local food into public-school cafeterias.  

During that period, in 2008, Eschmeyer and her husband moved back to Ohio, bought her husband’s grandmother’s 150-year-old house and a 13-acre plot on the family’s 150 year-old farm—less than a mile from her family’s dairy farm and where her parents still operate a 300-head operation—and began transitioning into what is now a 22-acre certified organic fruit and vegetable farm. On Harvest Sun Farm, they grow asparagus, eggplant, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, rhubarb, squash, strawberries, and chickens and flowers.

In January of this year, Eschmeyer was named by the White House as the Executive Director of Let’s Move and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy. As Executive Director of Let’s Move, she leads the First Lady’s work to help America raise a healthier generation of children. As Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, she also advises on food and nutrition issues beyond Let’s Move.

Eschmeyer says while Let’s Move has accomplished a great deal, more needs to be done. “If we care about growing a healthy generation of kids, we have to think and look long-term, and we have to take a broader view than just what’s on the tray when instituting policy and programs.” //

*Eschmeyer could not respond to the Organic Report’s questions, so all quotes and information are taken from other sources.