I opened up the Sunday Syracuse Post Standard Newspaper to find the usual fare on politics, traffic accidents, want ads and sale flyers, until I landed on a page that shook me to the core. It was the good news that the federally funded Graze-NY Initiative, under Congressman James Walsh’s and other NY representative’s support had been brought back to Central New York Agriculture.
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, this announcement came after a year-long campaign by a grassroots bunch of farmers, conservation professionals and friends to educate leaders on the value of a grass-based system for New York State. The words from farmers, much like a cat scratching at the door, have proven to make a difference when the odds were not looking so good.
The true wake up call to action came back in late 2006, when this beneficial initiative and its staff were basically eliminated because of the restructuring in Congressional leadership. The question was posed. What could be done to change this outcome?
The call went out to the countryside to ask farmers to tell their stories on how the Graze-NY Program has impacted their farms, families and natural resources. The thoughts written down on those letters came from the hearts of some very passionate people.
Marvin Moyer from Tioga Co. wrote, “ I think managed grazing is the best thing that ever happened to farming. I have no erosion or runoff going down the river into the Chesapeake Bay.” Bill Guptill from Onondaga Co. writes, “Without this program, our farm’s economic and environmental sustainability would be in question. There isn’t a community event that goes by that folks don’t say how much they love seeing the animals grazing.” “It is very difficult to continue to farm with the cost of taxes, fuel, equipment, feed and other supplies constantly rising. At least, with the assistance of Graze-NY and technical support from Dan Vrendenburgh we were encouraged in finding better ways to continue farming”, said George Bolson, Broome County. Bruce Rivington from Madison Co. comments, “Now is not the time to be cutting back support for a program that has the potential to revitalize the agricultural economy of upstate NY and be aesthetically pleasing to the urban population that visit our rural areas”. George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, emphasized on behalf of New York that technical assistance from various conservation organizations and programs along with farmer to farmer mentoring opportunities are extremely valuable tools for transitioning to organic practices and developing more grazing farms into the future.
Upon receiving some 60 letters, I vowed to side step the mail screening backlog and personally hand deliver them to our New York Representatives in Washington, D.C. Little did I know the work involved in making this promise a reality.
The process started by making connections with local and D.C. staff people to set up appointments and get appropriate educational materials and letters out of why I was coming and why folks needed to hear these stories about grass-based agriculture. The printer worked overtime, but I was able to make up 16 full packets with 70 pages each and stuff them in my cloth “Pride of New York” bag, which seemed to weigh up like a bale of hay.
The 6 hour journey to the Capitol was of course stressful because of a spring snowstorm and people forgetting how to drive in the weather. Parking in the shadow of the Arlington Cemetery I hoofed over to the subway to experience the “flight zone” effect of people crammed together for a 15 minute ride underground.
As I looked at the many scowled faces, my mind was swirling with apprehension. How long will take to get through security? Can I make the appointments on time from one building to the other and back again? What happens if a meeting goes too long and messes up the schedule? Will one farmer make a difference in the sea of people much more adept and polished than I? Ugh! I am starting to stress out.
Too late to worry, I’m riding the escalator up to my rendezvous point with a map in one hand and a 50 lb. bag in the other. Security was a breeze, since I didn’t have a pocketful of change or other related objects. I arrived early at Mr. Hinchey’s office, which was a very good thing, since the staff hadn’t been bombarded with phone calls or lobbyists yet.
As staff person, Moria read a few letters, took notes and listened to my passion for pastures, family farms, conservation and local food it was evident that this was also very important to the Congressman. The same reaction echoed loudly from every office I visited with those precious letters. At one point, Congressman Steve Israel yelled from his office and said, “Stop that farmer, I want to hear more about grass-fed meat.” I obliged of course.
I was sitting in Mrs. Clinton’s outer office waiting, as a wave of blue, power-suited pharmaceutical lobbyists surrounded the ole’ farmer. You can tell they are lobbyists because they have to wear a special tag. After the commotion and chest pounded ended, a fellow leaned over an asked, “what do you do?”
Being somewhat tired and hungry, I responded, “Oh, I don’t know, I only help feed this nation” pointing to the basket of Pride of NY Products on the table. The timing of that jab and the staff person announcing he was looking for the farmer could not have been more perfect.
I stopped in the cafeteria for some ice-cream and to rest my sore feet from walking on concrete. As I enjoyed my respite, one couldn’t help but notice all the groups of people strategizing and talking about bills, amendments and what appointments they needed to hit to get the most bang for the buck.
Yes, Ladies and Gentleman, we are a very little fish in a huge pond. Hearing and seeing this process in motion, I can really feel for the enormous workload placed on legislator’s staff to work with so many people.
The rest of the day went surprisingly smoothly and our New York Representatives and their staff were very engaging, enjoyable and helpful. The last appointment and packet ended up in Senator Schumer’s office at 6 pm with a “face to face” meeting with myself and member farmers from NY Farm Bureau. The farmers and their farms represented a diverse array of products such as: fruits and vegetables, maple syrup and honey, shellfish and dairy, along with this guy that calls himself a “grass farmer”. What a fitting way to end the day amongst my fellow farmers.
The walk from the Hart Senate Building to the subway was a lonely one. No one there to say good job, no one around to say that the efforts by a bunch of farmers made a difference, no fanfare, nothing, but sore feet, an empty sack and humility for what farmers do 7 days a week.
The Blue-Line was almost empty, with only a few weary travelers, as I passed by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s “Save the Crabs, then Eat’em” poster. That little bit of humor snapped me back to life and I started to feel warm inside again.
Approaching my 2001 Dodge Dakota pickup, I could see the familiar dent in the tailgate from a cantankerous steer, the sun faded fireman’s cap on the dash purchased to help 911 victims, the John Elway figurine hanging on the mirror, the red bandana tied on the shifter and the back window covered with support grazing stickers. Can anyone say “fish out of water.”
I opened the door and collapsed in the seat, but before the dome light went out, it cascaded a ray of light on my Grandfather Jimmy Steele’s picture which I carry with me always. I cried, and I cried some more. I was a tired, proud, overworked emotional wreck right smack dab in the nation’s capitol.
I wish he was here to see me talk about those letters and see the reactions of people that can identify with the importance of the family farmer and grass-based agriculture. After finally regaining my composure, I put the truck in drive, proud to have left a little of my 5 generations of farming roots and that of my fellow farmers behind to shape a nation.
As the lights of the city turned into darkness, the words from those letters played back many times in my head helping me navigate the journey back to the country where I belong.