Wise Words

A Conversation With Senator Patrick Leahy

Known as the father of the national organic standards and labeling program and the author of the legislation that chartered the program in 1990, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been a proponent of Vermont farmers during the almost 30 years he's held office. We caught up with the senator recently in Washington, D.C., and asked him about his critical role in the organic foods movement.

Q: Why have you taken such an interest in organic farming?

A: Vermonters were early pioneers in the organic movement, and our farmers gave me my early tutoring about organics. It is an important new market for Vermont products, it helps keep family farmers in business, and it meets a growing consumer demand for these goods. So when I became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, I made it a priority to help give the emerging organic industry a solid footing for growth.

Q: The new labeling standards, which went into effect in October 2002, took 12 years to create. How difficult was that process?

A: Labeling was always important both for producers and for consumers. Consumers need to be able to trust that the organic label means what it says because no one will seek out organic products if just anything can be labeled organic. Strong standards that reflected the idealism of the organic movement were critical. Despite many attempts to defeat or weaken the organic standards, farmers and consumers have repeatedly joined forces to protect the organic label.

Q: When you wrote the Organic Restoration Act, in response to a last-minute rider that attempted to prevent the USDA from enforcing a requirement that organic livestock be fed 100 percent organic feed, was it hard to find support?

A: After we pushed for 12 years to get organic standards established, it was disheartening when the nonorganic feed rider was slipped through Congress without debate and without a vote. But the reaction to that rider was enormously encouraging, and it shows that the organic industry has now come into its own. When I introduced the Organic Restoration Act to repeal the rider, folks from both parties rushed to support it, and calls of support poured in from across the country, from producers and consumers.

Q: How do you think the organic industry has changed in the last 13 years?

A: It has grown dramatically since then in breadth and depth, at a rate of about 20 percent a year over the last decade. In that short time, the industry has grown to range from crunchy to corporate and everything in between, while still largely being able to keep the grassroots idealism that it started with. It's an especially bright economic sector right now in American agriculture. And now that we have the toughest and most credible standards in the world, our organic industry is also poised for leadership in the export markets.

Q: Since 1998, some 350 Vermont dairy farms have shut down, according to statistics from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. Do you try to encourage dairy farmers who may be struggling to switch to organic practices?

A: Dairy farming is a way of life in Vermont, but it's also a business. With dairy prices at 25-year lows, I have been trying to help create as many opportunities as possible for Vermont farmers to diversify into higher-value products. Transitioning to organic production is certainly one of the options I have been promoting to Vermont farmers.

Q: What are some of your favorite organic foods?

A: I buy Vermont organic milk, even when I am down in Washington.

Q: You're often called the cybersenator because of your interactive website. How can people use this medium to get involved?

A: There are many resources and ways for people interested in the organic industry to learn more and get involved. On the farming and agriculture section of my website (http://leahy.senate.gov), I keep updated information about the organic industry and about Congress available for review. I also have several links to websites that people interested in organics might find useful.

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