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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) with Brian Bennett and Bennett's son
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) with Brian Bennett and Bennett's son

Schumer touts organic farms in St. Lawrence county

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After visits to Saratoga Springs and Plattsburgh yesterday, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer rode the back roads of St. Lawrence County to visit a small organic farm in Heuvelton. Schumer has taken on the nickname "the Brooklyn farmer" to tout his interest in New York agriculture. At Bittersweet Farm, he discussed efforts to stop fake organic products from China from entering the U.S. But his hosts wanted to convey a closer-to-home message, more support for local farms. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
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The “Brooklyn farmer” stepped around clucking hens as real farmer Brian Bennett gathered eggs from his moveable hen houses.

Wow, you’ve got a lot of eggs!  How many eggs do you get from this?  I usually get them three times a day and I get about 18.

A dozen folks trailed along as Schumer toured the fields and the greenhouses, where he munched some fresh pea shoots.

Do people eat these?  “oh yes.”  How come I didn’t know about ‘em?  I love ‘em!  They taste like fresh peas.

Schumer used Bittersweet farms as a backdrop to draw attention to the problem of conventionally grown Chinese produce being labeled as organic.  He called for the Department of Agriculture to adapt stricter standards and step up enforcement to keep pesticides and other chemicals out of imported organics.

If we allow the market to get flooded with falsely labeled organic products, it’s going to undercut what the Bennetts do here at Bittersweet Farm.

Imported honey was recently seized at the port in Phiuladelphia for being falsely labeled organic.

The site was an unlikely stop for Schumer, a very small 30 acre farm off the beaten path.  But of New York’s 800 organic farms generating 100 million dollars in sales, St. Lawrence has more than any other county.  And Bittersweet Farm owners Brian and Ann Bennett have become vocal proponents of the North Country’s local food movement.

And they had an earful for Schumer.

In this country every month there’s a new recall.  Eggs, beef, scallions, whatever.  And how do we revitalize these farms?  Fort Drum!  Here’s a huge population that could commit to buying s certain amount of local produce.  SCHUMER: “What a great idea.  Julie, we gotta work on that.”

Schumer turned to his assistant, then to a group of St. Lawrence University students who volunteer at Bittersweet Farms.

What do you think of that, girls?  They have an idea here, that Fort Drum buy some local produce.  “St. Lawrence University already does.”  And how’s the food?  “Great!”

Schumer also seemed to like other ideas the Bennetts pitched – a program called Farm for America, like Teach for America, that would provide labor for small family farms.  A mobile slaughterhouse that would help fill the demand for local meats.

At times, there seemed a disconnect between the U.S. Senator with Brooklyn sized expectations and policy plans aimed at China and the Bennetts farm.  In the greenhouse, Schumer asked why they grow so many different crops.  He looked at a little patch of arugula and said, well, this isn’t much here.

Brian Bennett replied.

We no longer need huge monocrop agribusiness.  What we need is small diversified local enterprises.

The tension between corporate agribusiness and small family farms is perhaps the biggest debate today in American agriculture.  Feed the world versus feed your community.  Ann Bennett says she thinks Schumer got the basics.

I think so.  I think he knows that small farms are in trouble, and I think he knows that small farms are important to the economy of New York State.

People like Senator Schumer will decide where that debate goes, on subsidies, on the upcoming farm bill, on milk pricing and organic certification.  And on this day, the Bennetts got their say.

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