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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Farmers plant political change

When Wal-Mart starts advertising organic produce, it's clear the organic movement has entered the mainstream. It should come as no surprise, then, that an increasing number of candidates with ties to organics have begun to enter the political fray.

This election season, the highest profile candidate is Democrat Jon Tester, running for U.S. Senate against Republican Conrad Burns in Montana. But there are a number of candidates at the state level as well, including Denise O'Brien, Democratic candidate for secretary of agriculture in Iowa, and Mark Ritchie, Democratic candidate for secretary of state in Minnesota.

"It's about time," says Jim Riddle, former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board. "It's just a sign of how organic is mainstream and readily accepted in the larger society. I think it's also consistent with the leadership positions that people in the organic community have taken. It's fitting that we have political leaders from this community."

"Not long ago, an organic occupation might have raised some eyebrows," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Now that we have candidates who actually farm organically, it bodes well that this is an accepted livelihood, if not necessarily a credential in the political arena." Scowcroft points out that although this year's crop of candidates includes only Democrats, organic issues have received support from both sides of the aisle in Washington.

One race attracting national attention is populist Jon Tester's campaign against Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, who is linked to the Abramoff lobbyist scandal. Tester and his family have successfully converted their dry-land farming operation to organic production, a move that began in the late 1980s. He farms wheat, barley, lentils, peas, millet, buckwheat, alfalfa and hay at his farm near Big Sandy, Mont. A former state senate majority leader, Tester won his primary battle against the Democratic establishment candidate, John Morrison, in part by taking strong stands on issues such as the war in Iraq. His tenure in the statehouse shows strong support for conservation measures, including renewable energy sources, a wind tax credit and a bill that would have held corporate agriculture responsible for GMO crop liability.

"Jon Tester is well-respected by his colleagues not just because he's an organic farmer, but because he's articulate and effective," Riddle says. "The leadership skills that make someone a good farmer or organic advocate can also make a good candidate."

Mark Ritchie, whose father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also has long-standing ties to the organic movement. In the 1970s, the current candidate for Minnesota secretary of state co-founded a network of farms, wholesale warehouses and retail food stores that specialized in producing and marketing locally grown organic and natural products. In 1976, he founded the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institute working on the links between local and global agriculture and rural community development.

Ritchie's own views and positions are deeply informed by his agricultural experience. "I know that we must have a strong economy in all geographic regions—urban, suburban, exurban and rural," he says. "I know about the importance of farm prices above the cost of production and living wages that enable families to pay their bills and invest in the future, and about the crucial interdependence of economic activity and the environment."

Ritchie's view on agriculture and the environment is so well-known to constituents, Riddle says, it has freed him to concentrate on other issues for his campaign. "He's stressing voter access, fair elections, equitability in the political process and related issues," Riddle says. "He's been a very articulate spokesman for organic and sustainable agriculture and fair trade, so people already know him for those positions."

In fact, Ritchie may be the highest-profile organic candidate in Minnesota, but he's not the only one. An organic dairy farmer is running for state senate, as is a master gardener and advocate for organics, according to Riddle.

Denise O'Brien's campaign may have the most direct connection to agriculture, because she's running for Iowa secretary of agriculture. "Denise has been an organic farmer for 30 years, so it's definitely something she's out there pushing for on a daily basis and wants to see more support for," says Rob Sand, O'Brien's campaign manager.

O'Brien, who began farming strawberries and raising dairy cows in 1976, is also the founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network and a past president of the National Family Farm Coalition.

She sees serious problems with the current government approach to farm subsidies. "Her take is that we need, in general, more diversity in our agriculture system," Sand says. "And that the federal subsidy program is the primary culprit behind monolithic agriculture. There are a lot of farmers who want to grow more than corn and soybeans, but they aren't supported by the government to do so."

What does this influx of candidates with a connection to organics mean for organic agriculture? "It means that our issues will have a better chance of being addressed," says Todd Kimm, communications specialist for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit educational organization. "People in general are becoming more interested in organic and sustainably raised food. That's the biggest reason why more candidates are interested in these issues—because their constituents are."

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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