It’s an interesting sort of thing….running for Congress, that is. Running for office, you spend all day, every day, meeting as many people as possible, raising as much money as possible, and learning as much as possible along the way. If done right, it’s exhausting. Yet, I have never experienced anything more rewarding.
Every so often a moment comes along that redefines and deepens my perspective on what it means to serve. In early May, my staff and I spent a day in the Champlain Valley touring local farms. This was one of those moments.
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The day started at campaign headquarters in Saranac Lake. We left just after 8:00 a.m. and, of course, needed some caffeine, so we stopped along the way in Keene at Cedar Run Bakery and Market to fuel up.
We arrived 15 minutes early to the eager face of my friend, Jeff Leavitt, who opened his organic grain farm in Reber, Edgefield Farm, five years back. No time was wasted; we jumped right into conversation about what he needs to succeed and grow. “Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure – from the roads we drive on to the power grids we rely on. It’s an investment,” Jeff told me. This infrastructure is crucial to the prosperity of farms like Edgefield.Have you ever climbed to the top of a grain tower? Well, Jeff and I did that morning to both take in the views and to demonstrate the hoops through which he needs to jump to find cellular coverage. Basic internet and cell coverage, while taken for granted in our few major population centers, are just some of the much needed resources Jeff and his neighbors need to help their businesses grow.
With Jeff as our guide, we started an invaluable tour of other farms and businesses in his area, which lasted until 2:00. Thank you, Jeff, for taking this time!
We took a ride down the road to Reber Rock farm. When we pulled up to the farm, we saw Racey down a stone path about 100 yards long. Racey spent some time talking with me about, of all things, taxes. Our local farmers have, and inspire, some of the most innovative tax policy ideas. Racey and I spoke at length about implementing tax incentives for consumers who buy from local farms like Reber Rock. Buying healthy food should be incentivized. Purchasing local organic food shouldn’t be considered a luxury – it saves money in the long run and makes everyone more productive. It’s from ideas like these that, with the right leadership, our region can become a model for growing rural economies.
Racey’s husband, Nathan, who was spending the day keeping the books, took some time out to share with me his perspective on our rural economy. “I think certainly the rural economy is a tough national issue – but hopefully an important one. I think agriculture is a great gateway into rural economic growth,” he said. I couldn’t agree more.
From Reber Rock, we hit the road to stop by Full & By Farm in Essex. When you pull up to the farm, the history and character of this place is striking. The main operation was on our right, but on the left was a picturesque red barn with the Full & By Farm logo hanging in the front.
We were greeted warmly by James who led us around back to meet his business partner, Sara. Speaking with the two of them (both transplants to the area) it’s evident there is a strong community among the farmers in this region. Sara told me she and James don’t have the capacity to order full pallets of seed, so they get together with other farms in the area to place orders. James told a similar story of sharing tools among farms. Farming communities here are inevitably dependent upon outside forces because of commodity pricing, so the question is how can we help farmers insulate themselves as much as possible from shocks and be as independent of these outside forces as possible.
We made a quick, non-farming stop at a hydroelectric plant on the Boquet River. Matt, a local artisan and owner of the plant, back in the early 1970s, wanted to be more self-sufficient and so he bought the facility and has operated it ever since. Matt has struggled to use this power plant to its fullest potential, given burdensome state and federal pricing requirements. North Country ingenuity like his should be celebrated and developed to give us local control over our electricity. Instead he is pigeonholed by regulation and has no choice but to continue operating the plant at its current burdensome status.
From the hydro plant, we continued on to the next farm: Echo Farm on Walker Rd. in Essex. Echo farm, as owner Dillon told us, is an operation exclusively devoted to catering weddings in and around the North Country. All food at the weddings – meat and vegetables – comes from their farm.
Dillon and I spoke in depth about this New York 21 congressional race. He, like so many Democrats across our district, is frustrated with the status quo. Dillon wants a Representative in Washington who will “make the right votes,” he said. Our next Democratic Representative, he said, will likely have a tough time pushing for legislation that will help farms like his from the back benches of Congress. However, as I told him, that is where coalition building comes into play. In Congress, I will build coalitions with other rural Members – Democrats and Republicans alike – to advocate for legislation that will help grow our North Country economy, including the farming sector.
From Essex, we headed to Willsboro. We stopped in to see small business owners, Lori and Joe, who run Indian Bay Marina. They’re open for the season from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, so you should head over by automobile or boat for a bite to eat looking at the breath taking views of Lake Champlain.
Lunchtime! We stopped at the Willsboro Diner for burgers. They. Were. Delicious.
After lunch, we headed to Essex Farm. This farm has been at the forefront of the organic farming movement for years. So many farmers I spoke with earlier in the day had connections to the work being done by Kristin, Mark, and their team.
Mark and I connected around the idea that we have all the resources and ingenuity we need to develop truly sustainable communities – communities that can provide for all families over the long-term. We just need to know how to responsibly harness the potential of our land. Essex Farm is a major community asset and employer. As the farms grow and need help outside their family members, they start hiring locally. The jobs are hard, but they pay well and could help keep our young people here after they graduate.
We next got a tour of The Hub on the Hill by Meghan, Production Manager. When I worked at the Adirondack North Country Association, Jori of the Champlain Valley came to us with the idea of starting a farming hub – a place local farmers can count on for shared resources, like an industrial kitchen, storage space, and a delivery service. The goal was also to help farmers expand their markets by creating value-added products they could sell year-round and deliver to places outside of our region.
I was proud to be a part of the team that helped take that idea and transform it into reality. So born was The Hub on the Hill. The Hub started with grant funding we secured and is now maintained through its own operation, employing three full-time staff members and two part-time. The Hub is essential to the success of many of the area farms, and funding for places like this needs to be retained.
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There was a time when Congress worked together to support farmers because they understood the essential role family farms play in our food system and in our economy. Farmers in our region still live and work by the culture and pride of hard work and commitment to their communities. Our country needs to get back to supporting this – to helping rural communities in a way that can be sustained and that can rebuild our rural economies.
My partnerships in Washington will be with other representatives from rural regions like ours who support policies that keep our family farms in business and at the center of our communities. Together, with the right North Country leader, I know that ten to fifteen years from now, our region can be a positive example of building, growing, and sustaining rural economic development.
The best way to serve is to understand, and the best way to understand is to spend time with people in their own environment. Every farmer we visited took time out of their day to tell me about what matters to them and to their way of life. For them to do that shows how much they care about their region and how seriously they take their role in the community. They are prepared to do all they can to help it succeed. Every conversation ended with the opportunity and invitation to talk again. These are the sorts of partnerships that are essential, now and when I’m in Congress.