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SF Blog: 5 Things I Learned in Washington, D.C.

Mount Vernon, U.S. Senate watching, and a great restaurant started by a farm group are highlights.

Whether you think Washington, D.C., is a shining city on a hill or Disneyland East, it is a fascinating place.

For the past few years, I’ve been active in a group called the North American Agricultural Journalists. True to its name, we’re a group of agricultural journalists from the U.S. and Canada. Each April, we hold our annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and interview federal government officials and members of Congress.

This year was especially interesting, as we witnessed the vote on the Senate floor of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. Here’s a bit of what was covered during our meeting.

1. George Washington was a brilliant — and complicated — fellow.

Before our meeting started, we toured Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon. It’s a fascinating visit that’s worth your time if you ever tour Washington, D.C. He was a gifted soldier and politician, but he was a farmer first. It’s filled with cattle, swine, goat, and poultry breeds that prevailed during Washington’s time. He would have hit it off with the soil health folks, as he was doing some of the things they’re doing, such as diversifying crop rotations.

The Mount Vernon exhibit also shows some of Washington’s warts, namely slavery. Slave quarters are shown where slaves had a simple bunk where they’d catch some zzz’s before working dawn to dusk. There’s also an exhibit dedicated to slavery during Washington’s time. Washington was a major slaveholder before, during, and after his presidency.

This isn’t a slam at Washington — that’s just the way things were in those days. Eleven other presidents owned slaves, too. In his defense, Washington morally struggled with slavery later in his lifetime. His will provided for freeing the slaves he held when he died. Over a year later in January 1801, his wife, Martha Washington, freed her late husband’s slaves.

Still, this exhibit puts Washington and the times in which he lived in a different light than what I read about in school.

2. Watching U.S. Senate votes are fascinating.

Visitors can watch senators debate in the Senate gallery. We observed debate and the vote on Sonny Perdue as USDA Secretary. Guidelines are strict. I pity the person who would bring a cell phone in and have it ring. Capitol security will quickly haul you out and never allow you back in, we were told.

The voting is something to watch. I thought there would be an electric scoreboard, similar to what state legislatures have. Not so in the U.S. Senate. During Perdue’s confirmation, senators ambled in and votes were recorded with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down or the nod or sideways shake of a head.

It was cool seeing Senators you’ve only seen on television in real life. Sen. Al Franken (DFL-MN) still looks like he has a little Saturday Night Live left in him, slightly bouncing up and down a time or two on the Senate floor while chatting up another senator. It seemed like a big club, with Republican and Democratic senators mixing it up.

There was one exception. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) seemed to amble by himself on the floor, with few Senators engaging him in conversation. Maybe no one likes him. Then again, maybe every Senator is insanely jealous of him, given he’s now the most popular politician in the country.

3. There’s a touch of North Dakota on the Washington, D.C., restaurant scene.

Back in 2005, members of the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) were looking for ways to market their products directly to consumers. The NDFU teamed with Washington, D.C., restauranteurs Dan Simons and Michael Vucurevich to form the Farmers Restaurant Group. This entity now owns five restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area that feature direct-sourced food from family farms and ranches, farmer-owned cooperatives, and farmer-owned processing plants.

We ate at the most recently opened restaurant, Farmers & Distillers. The food and drink are super! It’s a great effort by NDFU members to move closer to the consumer. For more information, check out farmersrestaurantgroup.com.

4. Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees get along pretty well.

“I would say the Senate Ag Committee is probably the least partisan of any committee,” says Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). “We have to be bipartisan because we cannot (otherwise) pass a bill in the Senate.”

“Governor Perdue will resist regional divides and partisan pressures to do what is best for our farmers,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) while supporting Sonny Perdue’s confirmation as USDA Secretary. This bipartisanship bodes well for passage of a farmer-friendly 2018 Farm Bill.

5. Members of Congress really do listen to constituents.

Well, at least some of them do. “I heard a novel idea from one of my farmers,” says Rep. Collin Peterson (DFL-Minnesota). “He said to get crop insurance, for every 5 acres you insure, you have to maintain one animal unit. He said that will get us back to having more livestock and diversity.”

That idea likely will fade. Still, the concept of including livestock in a farming system is not too far off from what folks in the soil health movement stress. They point out that grazing cattle or sheep is a tool that works well with no-till/cover crops/diverse rotations. 

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