My journey from Kickapoo to Washington DC unfolded, and I arrived just in time for a shimmering May heat wave. The locals, however, were beside themselves with languid delight having just come off weeks of cold gray, rainy weather. After dusting the country mud off my boots and donning a suit, I headed over to the noteworthy Newseum – famous to many who tourist their way through town. I wasn’t here to read the daily grind, however. I arrived in Washington DC to attend OTA’s Policy Conference and Hill Visit Days, to educate, circulate and pontificate to Congress on all things organic. Of course dining my way around Capitol Hill was tantamount to my journey.
This year, the Policy Conference was so blistering that it was completely sold out, and I was soon to learn why. The pageant of speakers ranged from USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to various esteemed members of Congress. The theme was clear; organic was hot stuff in the halls and offices of DC.
An info-graph framed the main stage and shouted: “The booming U.S. organic industry posted new records in 2015, with total organic product sales hitting a new benchmark of $43.3 billion, up a robust 11 percent from the previous year’s record level and far outstripping the overall food market’s growth rate of 3 percent!”
When I happened to query a Congressman as to what other industry continues to grow at this incendiary pace, the answer was “DEFENSE,” which is truly a sad state of affairs.
The conference carried on with a cavalcade of information that galloped forth towards a crescendo that proved something we had all long suspected, Organic Creates Prosperity! OTA unveiled a new white paper, “U.S. Organic Hotspots and their Benefit to Local Economies,” by Penn State Agricultural Economist Dr. Edward Jaenicke that shows organic food and crop production—and the business activities accompanying organic agriculture—create real and long-lasting regional economic opportunities.
The effects of these Organic Hot Spots are blistering; counties with high levels of organic agricultural activity whose neighboring counties also have high organic pursuits boost median household incomes by an average of $2,000 and reduce poverty levels by an average of 1.3 percentage points. That is truly something to celebrate, and elevate to Congressional attention.
All of the excitement was stimulating to the point that hunger overtook my reason. Just in time, lunch was served with a focus on the tastes of Cuba. Recently Congresswoman Pingree, along with Secretary Vilsack took an army of organic soldiers to Cuba to fuel trade. So our lunch began with elongated Tostones, otherwise known as fried plantains, towering out of a mound of creamy guacamole. Salad ensued with fresh greens, Cuban cheese and robust cherry tomatoes. The main course was “Sandwich Cubano” with authentic Cuban bread, buttery grilled with layers of succulent turkey, roasted pork loin, pungent Swiss cheese, sweet pickles, and spicy yellow mustard! The flavors were so authentic I longed for a real Mojito!
The afternoon was filled with breakout sessions pondering the future of the organic community. We need to take stock and look ahead; we have a lot of unknowns – a new administration is coming, new congressman and senators will be elected. Organic champions will retire and new ones need to be educated on the growth organic can enflame. We will certainly have new tussles in the 2018 Farm Bill. Our fiery success is a spotlight and that will incite conventional trade associations and other organizations to battle against us in policy and for funding.
So the next day it was important that we stormed the halls of Congress to begin laying the groundwork for our future. Starting at the Hart Senate building, we aroused the interest of many a Senator with our raging year-over-year double-digit growth. We kindled the imagination of Congress people in Rayburn, Longworth and Cannon. Back and forth we marched from the House to the Senate through the Mid-Atlantic swelter, our suits wrought asunder, our feet knew no mercy. It was all in a good day of lobbying with a quick peek in the Library of Congress to elevate our senses.
I believe I walked seven miles that day, yet was invigorated by the activities. As I toddled off the Hill, I knew it was time to party! A glass of celebratory Champagne and an organic dark chocolate covered strawberry was my revelry! We toasted and compared notes, laying plans for Farm Bill 2018.
As I walked back to my hotel, I recalled the evening before when we honored my Congressman, Sam Farr at the US Botanical Garden. This was an elegant celebration of a true organic champion. A leader who tirelessly fought for organic regulations and funding over the span of his career. With his retirement, it becomes evident that we must cultivate new leaders who support and understand organic as a dynamo of economic growth. No longer are we a passing fad in the skillet. We are an important innovative fiber of the agricultural landscape and the next Congress and Administration need to hear all about it.
My conclusion: never pass up the chance to eat, lobby and play in DC. The Organic industry needs us all to show up!