This afternoon, thanks to an old college friend, I got an invitation to meet and speak with Soon-To-Be Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) at a local organic farm, to talk about food and agriculture issues. Now, I'm interested in food and everything, but it's not exactly my area of expertise. So, not wanting to get caught flatfooted, I thought I had better get caught up on these issues quick. Who would you turn to for help on food issues? Me too! OrangeClouds115, so charmingly introduced to us just yesterday, was kind enough to take several long hours after a long day at work to brief me on all the hot food and agriculture issues of the day, and to email back and forth all weekend, so that I could show up today, armed with a printout of of the Netroots Nation platform & a head full of our shared vision of what sustainable agriculture could do to build our communities and make our children healthier. I'm pleased to say that Udall has that same clear vision in his head.
To set the scene: I bicycled over to the meeting place, Los Poblanos Farm, a historic farm that now offers an organic CSA program, participates in local growers markets, and supports an inn and cultural center. The Rembe family, who owns it, have done a tremendous amount to build community in our little neck of the woods.
I arrived right on time, which meant I could watch everyone else arrive. The girlfriend who invited me has been organizing for local food issues, and introduced me to a lot of the people there, who ran the gamut from educators to economic development people to one hoary old farmer who drove all the way from Las Cruces to talk to Udall about water issues and development. The crowd was typical of New Mexico progressives-- lots of Tevas, piercings, tattoos, long frizzy gray hair, beards down to navels, and one really fancy turquoise suit. Like smart desert folk, we all huddled in the shade of the cottonwoods until the organizers announced that Udall was arriving and we had to sit down, at which point the friendly farmer from one of the community farms took a look at the seats baking in the hot sun, and led a total revolt. We all moved the seats way back from the "stage" (a wagon parked in front of the silo where the tractor is in the picture), and got comfortable just as Udall arrived. No fool he, he quickly realized that he had the "hot seat," and adjusted accordingly, with a great deal of humor, and kept his stump speech brief.
He began by reminding us of the Udall family motto: "Do what's right, it will please some and astonish the rest." Tom Udall has stood on the right side of so many issues, from the AUMF to the PATRIOT Act, and he continues to fight for jobs, education, and healthcare. Then he got into the "meat" of the issue, reminding us that energy conservation demands a return to a more sustainable food distribution system, starting with people growing their own food. He suggested a return to the kind of unified effort made during World War II to plant victory gardens, resulting in Americans growing about 40% of their own produce. He challenged us: "Everyone needs to be part of the solution. Growing food closer to home is part of the key to solving the energy problem." Score one for local food!
He began taking questions, insisting that the questioners come stand in the sun right next to him, which occasioned a lot more laughter from the smugly shaded rabble. First question, GMOs- Udall answers he will continue fight GMOs every inch of the way. Next up, can we have a bracero or guest worker program? Udall: we need "serious immigration reform" to "bring everyone out of the shadows" and then we can talk about guest workers.
Third up, a mom asking about the Farm to Cafeteria program, and the lack of suppliers who can qualify to sell to the schools, also about reducing the caps on payments to large agribusinesses for commodity foods (that outcompete the small farmers). Udall answered the second part first, said he had fought for a cap of $250K for commodity payments to the corporate farms, but had to compromise at a $1mil cap on payments. So far so good. Then he did something interesting that I saw over and over again all afternoon. He said to the mom, "if you help me with this, I can get more details about what farmers are lacking to qualify." He gave her a card & asked her to set up an appointment with his staff to work out the details. Wow! He was listening! Final question, about funding more programs to support youth education through school farms and gardens. Udall: Yes! We must teach the kids, they can't be healthy without a connection to the land & their food. Families should not get their farms taxed, so they can pass them on through the generations. Soaking his nice (green) shirt at that point, so he asked if he could talk to everyone one by one, in the shade.
He came down off his wagon and spent a good hour circulating, chatting everyone up one by one, taking time to listen, make comments, and get a lot of hugs (this is New Mexico after all). He directed several people to schedule appointments to follow up with him later, and also directed a few people to the right person at some other level of government to help them with their problems.
At Jill's gentle urging, I took my few minutes to talk with him about the National Animal ID System. As it turns out, based on his fact sheet and his speech, that was the only part of his Food & Ag platform that does not follow the NN platform that all the great Recipe for America folks developed. so I gave up the chance to talk about noxious weeds (the bee in my bonnet), to ask him where he stands on NAIS, and to point out that it is an ill-advised fix for a system (e.g. centralized food production & distribution) that is broken from the start. He glared at me a little. "I've voted against those provisions every time they've come up," he says. "We don't need invasive laws that hurt small farmers." Couldn't have said it better myself.
It was no surprise to me that Udall is so solid on Food & Agriculture issues. As a Representative, he has done almost nothing I have disagreed with; unfortunately, I've never had him represent me. What did surprise me today is how comfortably he moves among the freaky folk of New Mexico. He listened just as intently to the high school administrator with the ZZ Top beard and the tattoos up to his knees as he did to the young Sikh farm girl, or the energetic long-haired dude from the barrio who was bubbling with excitement over his work "with farms and kids, yo! I expaaaaaand their minds with the miracle of life!" Each one got respectful attention and direct answers. As his aides started to hassle him to leave, he looked around with great concentration, counting in his head. "I think I talked to everyone here," he mused. I think he did, too. He even petted the ubiquitous dogs.
I went to this meeting expecting to be knocked out by how cool and progressive Udall is (I'm very susceptible to progressive "crushes") and of course I was. But what knocked me out even more was the realization that all those people there—Xers and boomers, Anglos and Hispanics, hippies and freaks and at least one really straight person— we ALL have that vision in our head, of what Albuquerque would look like with sustainable local agriculture, fresh food in the school cafeteria, neighbors coming together to produce our food, families passing on farms to their children, a clean food supply, and a renewal of cultural traditions that are beginning to die out in New Mexico, on land that host Matt Rembe pointed out has been farmed for a thousand years.
There is a moment that happens for creative professionals, when you've thought over something so much, and then suddenly everything gels and takes on a life of its own. At that point, your work is over; the rest is just production. I felt that "gelling" today. We all share this vision, and we all have the will to make it happen. Maybe we'll take different approaches, and work at different speeds, but we're not going to give it up.
Meanwhile, all you progressive foodies out there, give it up for Tom Udall! I know you want this guy to be your friend in the Senate!