A group of farmers and foodies gathered in a barn at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett on Sunday and listened as New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand talked about the importance of small farms that supply Long Islanders with fresh food. The senator believes agriculture could be key in rebuilding the economy while also addressing issues like nutrition, obesity and keeping the nation’s food supply safe from contamination. So significant is agriculture and food production, she said, that the Senator believes it should be considered a national security issue.
The event – organized by Edible Manhattan publisher and Edible East End editor Brian Halweil, Quail Hill Director and Farmer Scott Chaskey, Bonnie and Steve Munshin and Leigh Merinoff – was part of an effort by Senator Gillibrand to conduct “listening sessions” throughout the state with local farmers.
The senator’s tour comes as Congress prepares to debate the next Farm Bill renewal in 2012.
Gillibrand is the first New York Senator to sit on the Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years. New York boasts over 35,000 farms on over 7.1 million acres, a fourth of the state’s land. The industry generates about $4.5 billion for New York’s economy.
In an interview following the event, Senator Gillibrand talked about why she believes Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which takes place at Quail Hill and at neighboring farms like Balsam Farm in Amagansett and Sunset Beach Farm in North Haven, are an economic benefit for both the farmers and the communities they serve.
Senator Gillibrand announced a bill this June within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that seeks to promote CSA, which are designed so members can pay for a weekly share of the farm’s produce, either picking up a box with their yield for the week, or actually harvesting vegetables from the ground, as is done at Quail Hill.
There are more than 12,000 CSA farms operating throughout the country, with 350 in New York State. Senator Gillibrand’s Community Supported Agriculture Promotion Act’s competitive grant program would award federal funds to non-profit organizations, extension services and local and state governments to provide support for growers. That would range from marketing and business assistance to crop development and the development of innovative delivery and distribution programs to encourage growth and save costs.
Preference will be given to projects working with family farms, farms operated by or employing veterans — a particular passion of the junior senator — and those that reach out into “food deserts,” which are low income communities without access to fresh foods.
A resident of upstate New York, near Albany, Senator Gillibrand said that while her grandmother was certainly a grower, raising corn, zucchini, raspberries and other crops, her passion for CSA came after she learned more about agricultural issues. She learned first hand the influence farming has on local economies, providing employment as the country continues to struggle with joblessness. She also sees agriculture as an educational tool to combat health care issues like childhood obesity.
Supporting stateside agriculture is not only crucial to the economy, the senator said, adding that it is also a national security issue, pointing to the tainted milk scandal in China in 2010, among others. The senator said one of her focuses on the agricultural committee is drafting and supporting legislation that will allow the industry to grow, and create more jobs, as well as healthy food for the dinner table.
“We don’t want to lose New York as a food producer,” said Senator Gillibrand, adding that supporting small farms and the ability for them to branch out and sell specialty food items, which is an economic driver in the agriculture industry, is critical. She would like to see a stronger Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program to help farmers branch out into the production of jams or cheese for market sale.
She noted New York can proudly call itself “the center of Greek yogurt in the country.” Chobani, a Greek yogurt crafted in Central, New York, has become a nationwide staple for many, as Greek yogurt gained in popularity over the last five years.
Senator Gillibrand said she would like to work on behalf of Long Island farmers and those in the Hudson River Valley to seek some of the $1 billion in economic aid up for grabs in a regional competition created by Governor Andrew Cuomo to promote job growth throughout the state.
“I have talked to as many farmers as will listen to me,” said Senator Gillibrand. “They are great stewards of our state.”
Senator Gillibrand said the small, family farms are not only economic drivers in New York, but also bring in tourism dollars, drawing visitors interested in wine or cheese trails as a new kind of culinary vacation.
“That is very valuable on Long Island,” she said. “And very valuable in the Finger Lakes.”
Agriculture also has the ability to teach our children where their food comes from, added Senator Gillibrand, an increasingly more critical kind of education as childhood obesity rates continue to skyrocket.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent — or 12.5 million — children ages two to 19 are obese. In New York State, 10 to 15 percent of children are obese.
“Our children just don’t understand where their food comes from,” she said.
A member of the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, Senator Gillibrand also sees the ability to create jobs in agriculture for veterans, who like many are facing high unemployment rates among their ranks. Working in agriculture would provide an opportunity to learn about nutrition, but also about small business, she said. Senator Gillibrand also added the act of farming can aid post -traumatic stress disorder.
Senator Gillibrand also enjoyed the sweeter side of agriculture on Sunday, tucking into two servings of local berry cobbler while talking to Chatsky, other farmers, chefs and writers.
“I like raspberry,” she said.