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Breaking Ground

Carol Moseley Braun on working the Senate and the soil

Courtney Kendrick

Carol Moseley Braun was the first African-American woman appointed to the Senate, representing Illinois as a Democrat from 1993 to 1999. After a thirty-year career in politics and public service, serving, among other positions, as the Ambassador to New Zealand, Moseley Braun turned to the private sector. She founded her own USDA-certified organic and biodynamic company called Good Food Organics in 2002 and under its umbrella sells Ambassador Organics, a line of food products which currently includes teas, coffee, cocoa, and olive oil. Biodynamics is a holistic agricultural approach that involves crop diversification, the maintenance of on-farm biodiversity preserves such as marshes and forests, and the avoidance of chemicals and off-farm products. For Moseley Braun, biodynamics is a way “to heal our bodies and our farmland.” She grew up between Bronzeville, Park Manor, and Chatham, and currently resides in Hyde Park.

I sat down with Moseley Braun in her office one morning to talk about her company, biodynamic agriculture, and her work with agricultural policy in Illinois.

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It might come as a surprise to someone that you have spent so many years working on agriculture policy and, now, in the food industry, given that you grew up right here in Chicago. Would you talk a little bit about where your passion for agriculture and nutrition comes from?

There’s a picture over there that I’d like you to take a look at. My mother’s family were farmers. And we still in fact have a farm, it’s in Union Springs, Alabama. And as a girl, I worked the farm, ‘cause they put kids to work in those days, and so I worked the farm, and then I would walk through the—I called it the forest—with my great-grandmother, who’s in that picture, and so I developed a love of nature as a little girl. My folks would send us south every summer, every school break, whatever, and that’s where I spent my summers—I spent a great deal of time.

Fast forward to when I got to the Illinois legislature. Because I ran against the Chicago Machine, I had to look for friends wherever I could find them. And so I would end up going to people’s county fairs, and being involved with agriculture as a state legislator. And in fact one of the reasons I was able to pass—‘cause education has also been a passion of mine—and I passed the bill establishing the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, and that was because in those days nobody wanted to give Chicago schools a dime, and I got the downstaters—I went and talked to my friends in the downstate caucus and one of them said, “Oh, can you put agriculture in this in any way? Our guys will vote for anything that says agriculture.” And I said, “how ’bout this, we’ll establish an agricultural high school.”

So I did agriculture as a state legislator, and then when I got to the United States Senate, I was on the Finance Committee. And I was the first women in history to be on the Senate Finance Committee as a permanent member, and of course the Finance Committee, a lot of their work has to do with trade, which has a lot to do with agriculture, and price supports and all of that, so I got involved with agriculture again. And then of course after my Senate career was over, I went off to New Zealand as the Ambassador, and New Zealand has—the joke was always more sheep than people—and so once again, a lot of agriculture. So I’ve been connected to agriculture in one way or another all my life.

So that was one of the things that got me started on this path. And then in a funny instance of serendipity, I was invited to a birthday party for a girl I thought I knew. It turned out to be a girl whom I knew, but less well, who had the same name as the person I thought I was going to the birthday party for. And this woman was involved with biodynamic agriculture, because it was the Michael Fields Institute, and Michael Fields is kind of a center for biodynamics. I met the people who were doing biodynamics there, and got interested in that, but so I got deeply involved with biodynamics, again, as an outgrowth of my lifelong interest in agriculture.

And so the biodynamics actually made absolute sense to me because it was kind of like how my great-grandmother used to farm. It had the same stuff, the same practices in many regards. She never used chemicals, or pesticides on any of her stuff, in fact if the soil was deficient in any way she would use a mixture of herbs to cure the soil, and that’s really what biodynamics is about.

And so you now have an organic and biodynamic food company [Good Food Organics] that sells teas, coffee…

And cocoa—beverages. The general content description is beverages. And we have tea, coffee, cocoa, and we also have olive oil now.

It’s a lot of work. That’s the weeds I’m in today, we’re all in. Diane is here working on getting the paperwork straightened out, and Cynthia’s filling an order, and I’m, you know, putting out fires, so…It is a lot of work. A lot more than I think anyone really appreciates on the outside of the industry. ’Cause think about it—it’s a complex industry, it’s been around for a long time.

How do you source your ingredients? And what makes the biodynamics industry different from the organics industry?

It’s very difficult. And that’s what we’re confronting even as we speak: we make it a point—if it’s not organic, we don’t sell it, let me start with that. So everything is organic, but it’s more difficult to source organic products than it is conventional. But it’s even more difficult still to source biodynamic. So there’s [only] a handful of producers around the planet for this stuff.

Do you see interest in biodynamics growing among consumers?

I hope so. I mean, Whole Foods is placing a bet on biodynamics because they actually have some sections that offer biodynamics. I’m hoping that the public embrace of biodynamics grows because it’s simply the most sustainable—the thing about biodynamics is that it intersects with—it gets you at the intersection of sustainability and personal health. And so it’s healthier than the products that have been sprayed with pesticides, but it’s also healthier for the planet. And so I’m confident—and that’s the bet we’ve placed with this little company—that the understanding of biodynamics will grow over time. We haven’t really seen it in terms of sales.

One criticism of biodynamic––and also of organic––is that products are expensive, and so not accessible to the larger population. How would you persuade someone that purchasing biodynamic products is worth the extra cost?

Well, it’s like, okay, so do you want to pay now, in the grocery store, or do you want to pay hospital bills? It really at the end of the day for the individual comes down to a choice between—you either pay for it now or pay for it later in terms of your own personal health. There is a corollary debate in terms of the sustainability issue, and that is, how badly do you want to screw up the planet, or do you want to talk about climate change? How badly do you want to contribute to mitigating the ill effects on the earth of using all these chemicals and pesticides?

One of the reasons it’s more expensive, organic and biodynamic, is because of the way that our farm subsidies operate. We as taxpayers subsidize the chemical companies that make the pesticides, that make the chemicals—and we also subsidize the growers, frankly, in terms of industrial agriculture. So those subsidies are not available for products that are grown without chemicals, for products that are grown with just herbs, to cure the soil or with individual labor to address the condition of a given plant.

Because of the way that the incentives line up, again, that’s the policy debate. That requires me putting my public policy hat back on [laughs], which it’s like, I’m focusing on “Can I get these products on a shelf in a grocery store?”

Chicago Public Schools has in recent years been encouraging students to think more critically about food by gardening during school hours, and working with Aramark to source local foods. What do you think of this? Is it a turn in the right direction?

Well, I think that schools are beginning to talk more about where their food comes from and what I’m seeing in young kids is that…they’re paying more attention to what they’re eating. And that is, I think, the most important thing that we can do in terms of both our public health issues and in terms of helping young people chart a path for their lives. And so I think it is very positive that Aramark and the whole notion of sourcing locally makes a big difference, not just in terms of support for the local growers, for the local agriculture, but also in terms of the energy savings. I mean, you’re not running trucks up and down the highway for such long distances, and that has impacts, positive impacts, I think, in terms of other issues like climate change.

To move back a little further, back to your time in the Senate, what were your priorities in terms of agricultural and nutrition policy, and how are they different from your priorities today?

I call myself a recovering politician [laughs], so I’ve recovered, sufficient to say I don’t have these [policy] conversations as much any more, but—back to how the incentives are structured—I was able to get the loan rates for soy beans changed so that they could be competitive and get the same consideration as the people who grow corn and wheat do. That, I thought, was a major deal. I worked with Tom Harkin on getting the bovine growth hormone out of milk. And as far as I was concerned, that was a huge issue.

And what would your priorities be if you were in the Senate today? What do you think are the most pressing issues facing the country?

Well, again, those are the kinds of things the Finance Committee would look at, and [we] did look at it. Again, I was never on Agriculture Committee, but I did a deep dive on some of the agriculture issues. And I’ll never forget, I went to one of the Finance Committee meetings, and I walk in, here’s this black girl walking into this room of old white men and they looked at me like, “What are you doing here?” and one in fact said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “What are you talking about? I may not be a farmer,” I said, “but I’ve worked a farm, and I grew up on a farm, and I’m probably the only person in this room who has fought behind a plow.” And it was like, “OK, maybe she does have a place at this table.”

But the point is that I think there are so many different issues right now: prices are depressed, as you probably know, and the prices are depressed because the yields have been so good, and the yields are so high because they’re pumping the soil full of chemicals and whatnot, and so the nutrition is declining, so I think we have a crisis in agriculture. For me, the overarching issue right now is climate change.

You were just talking about race dynamics in the Senate finance committee, but the agriculture industry is also a very white, male industry––and of course there are reasons for that. How do you think we can reverse that, and how do you think the industry would benefit?

I have very strong feelings about this, about this question. I think that diversity can be increased in agriculture, and organics is a way to do it. The reason I make a point of this is that it would be impossible—well, nigh impossible, for minorities and women to catch up and to be competitive in industrial agriculture because it’s so capital-intensive. And not just so capital-intensive but because it’s so complicated, as it’s gotten over the years, and really have to have mentors and people who know the ground to work with you, and you don’t have—you’re right, there are all kinds of historical reasons why minorities got shut out of ag. Not the least of which was the activities of the Department of Agriculture. And in fact one of the guys who helped me on the board for this company, when we first started, had been a Department of Agriculture employee, and he spent a good deal of his career working on the issue of how USDA had treated the black farmers. Because they screwed them out of money, just for years, decades, and actually drove a lot of people out of business. So our own government’s complicit in the fact that there’s lack of diversity in agriculture.

So having said that, I think that our own government can be helpful in terms of increasing diversity in agriculture, and again, I see organics as being a way of doing that. Frankly, one of the reasons our little company is still here, is because we have the niche of organics to see us through the worst of the recession. If we had been in the conventional space as competitive as coffee and tea are, there’s no question in my mind that we would have been blown up. As it was, we were able to hold our own and hold on because there was growing demand for product that wasn’t polluted. So the niche has proved to be a positive and constructive one for us, but it is also positive and constructive for bringing minorities and women into agriculture.

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