Sanders, Welch, Ag leaders thank Leahy on behalf of Vermont farmers

More than 100 Vermonters and representatives of agricultural organizations gathered at the West Monitor Barn on Saturday to thank U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for his years of advocacy on behalf of farms and farmers.

Leahy, who announced last November that he will not seek re-election to a ninth term in the Senate, said, “I am honored and humbled.  I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but that’s because it’s true.  Marcelle and I deeply appreciate the kind words of the speakers and the chance to visit with old friends.  We thank Organic Valley and all of those involved in organizing this wonderful event.”

The event was organized by Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative, in partnership with 13 other agricultural businesses and organizations.

During his time in the Senate, Leahy authored the organics standards, certification and labeling program and resisted efforts to water them down.  He was a consistent and powerful advocate for dairy farmers, especially small farms.  He also is the father of the Farm to School program and made it possible for recipients of federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits to use those benefits to purchase local foods at farmers markets, among many other programs, large and small, intended to strengthen local food networks.

“There is no one who has done more to support food systems in Vermont than Senator Leahy,” said Breck Knauft of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps.  “Vermont’s a special place because of its land and its culture, and both have been shaped by Senator Leahy.”

Secretary of Agriculture, Farms and Markets Anson Tebbetts was among those who addressed the crowd.  Leahy, he said, made sure members of Congress from non-dairy states understood the importance of dairy.

“Once Senate hill staffers got a Taste of Vermont, they knew Vermont could not be left out of the farm bill,” said Tebbetts, referring to Leahy’s annual Taste of Vermont reception held at the Capitol and featuring Vermont agricultural products.  Tebbets recalled Leahy bringing Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Al.) from station to station at the event.  Shelby is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Leahy chairs.

Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) referred back to that incident in his own remarks.  “Patrick, you use kindness as a weapon… You made it really hard for people to say ‘no.’”

Welch noted that with most Senators of Leahy’s stature, those speaking about his career would talk about how much money they’d brought home and the programs they’d started.  All of that was true of Leahy, Welch said, adding, “I’m really moved by the wonderful remarks that are about the character of this man.”

Grace Oedell, executive director of Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), said, “It’s hard to overstate the visionary and foundational work you’ve done on behalf of small-scale and organic farms.”

Not only had he created the organics program, she said, but he stayed with it, making sure the organic standards maintained integrity.

Gary Hirschberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, shared the story of an attempt by a member of the U.S. House from Georgia to make it possible for farmers to use non-organic feed, but still label their livestock organic in a last-minute addition to a bill.  Hirschberg said he immediately called Leahy’s Chief of Staff, and Senator Leahy not only got the change removed from the bill, but used the threat as an opportunity to found an organics caucus in Congress.

Leahy, Hirschberg said, “understood that organic is much more than a set of standards, it’s an ethic.”  He called Leahy “a truly consistent moral compass” who put farmers, farmland and science first.

“At a time when our very democracy is on the line your example gives me hope the American experiment is really possible,” Hirschberg said.

Oedell, too, spoke of Leahy’s commitment to people.  “Concern for real people was always at the heart of his work,” she said.  “Senator Leahy is a kind and gentle soul, but he is fierce in his values.”

She also touched on his relationship with Marcelle Leahy.  “They love, celebrate and lift each other up,” Oedell said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Marcelle “has become in many ways the longstanding first lady of our state, beloved and respected.”

Speaking of those who have served Vermont in Congress, Sanders said, “I think history will record that at the very top of that list is Senator Patrick Leahy.”

Sanders called Leahy “a strong and consistent defender of women’s rights,” adding, “he’s been there for working families.”

When he first sought to introduce an organics certification program, the late North Carolina Republican Jessie Helms chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee and dismissed organics as “crunchy granola,” Leahy said.

When Leahy took over as chair, he was able to create the National Organics Program in 1990.  “Crunchy granola?” Leahy said.  “Now a $62 billion industry?  I wish I had some more crunchy granola.”

The success of the industry has meant “there are people who want the profits of organic, but they don’t want to do the work,” Leahy said.

Work was something Leahy did a lot of, according to Chuck Ross, former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture and a member of Leahy’s staff for 16 years. Ross used to drive Leahy to events, during which Leahy would alternate calls to Vermonters with calls to his peers in Congress, with an occasional call to the president thrown in.  “He never rested,” said Ross.

But he did pause between phone calls to tell stories that often had Ross laughing hard while trying to drive.

Leahy, Ross said, never lost his appreciation for the special opportunity he had been given by Vermonters to represent them in the Senate.

One of the things he learned from Leahy is the importance of saying, ‘thank you,’ Ross said.  “We the people of Vermont owe you a big thank you.”