As a Louisiana farmer, Marguerite Green has a deep understanding of the challenges facing local farmers. She’s deeply passionate about farming and its role in helping the state achieve a better, more sustainable future – both economically and ecologically. I recently spoke with her about her campaign to become the next Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, including her motivations and plans for the future of the state’s farming and timber industries.
What pushed you to run for Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry?
I had always known that this is something that I would want to pursue at some point because I’d never seen the department really prioritize sustainable or food-producing farmers. I always had thought that would be something that needs to happen, and I’d love to be part of that. I would really love to live in a state that actually gives support and resources to farmers like me. That timeline just accelerated a lot essentially because of the environmental issues that we’re experiencing and the fact that climate change is going to affect agriculture so greatly and also that it’s a two-way street.
Basically, agriculture, at its best, can help heal climate change, at its worst can exacerbate it. And climate change at its worst is really going to have a terrible impact on agriculture. So it felt like, on a pretty quick timeline it went from, “Oh, someday I would like to change how that department focuses and help give some more support to people like me,” to “Oh, the time is right now, we actually only have 12 years to really change course, and if agriculture is going to be an integral part of that – which it has to be – then we have to have someone at the helm who cares about sustainability, and who cares about protecting our agriculture and forestry industries, but holding them accountable for being better.”
Louisiana agriculture has been hit particularly hard by the current trade war with China. As AG Commissioner, how will you help the state to deal with the challenges posed by current Washington policies?
That’s a great question. I think that one of the things that we know, and that we’ve seen even over this campaign, but before it, is that we’re a little bit helpless in this trade war. It’s a decision that has been made by our President, and I deeply disagree with it, and I think that it is causing a lot of strife for American farmers. But in my opinion, what we can do is to help build resiliency against it. Resilience toward the future is to actually help our farmers diversify to crops that can be sold in specialty markets, that can be sold domestically. That way they’re not pawns in international trade wars.
I have my doubts that whenever this trade war is ‘over’ – and I think we’re at a point where it’s like “what does ‘over’ even mean for this?” It’s this ridiculous and sort of ongoing situation that now feels like it’s so far from where it started that I guess the way I see it is whenever this is over I don’t see everything returning to any sort of modicum of stability that we had to begin with. And I don’t know that that would be best anyway because our subsidy system is such an insecure system that basically floats on this raft of a couple of billions of dollars every year and it puts our farmers at the whims of markets that we’ve had to stabilize through subsidies. My vision for a better future would be helping those farmers have more stable businesses to begin with.
Small farmers have faced increasingly tough challenges as the U.S. has shifted largely to large, industrial-style farms. What is your plan to help Louisiana’s small farms stay alive without over-reliance on government subsidies?
As the Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, what I want to do is help people develop markets for their crops and start diversifying in small and stable and safe chunks what they’re producing and where it goes once they produce it. For instance, we could be helping to encourage some more sweet potato distilling into specialty vodkas that have a more stable market as a value-added product. Or, we could be encouraging specialty grain markets. We could encourage farmers to build their soil health and start to produce things like watermelon crops or pumpkin crops that might require more work on the front end, but long-term they actually build more sustainability for businesses.
The way that I want to do that is by reinvigorating the marketing department of the Lousiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. That’s a department that’s been hit pretty hard in recent budget cuts because of the tightening of belts at the department. What we can do with that is encourage more farmers’ market participation, we can encourage people to get out and prioritize buying local food. The way that the department does that now is through a little certification stamp and a website, and I believe that we can do so much more.
We essentially have a department that is supposed to be marketing our agricultural goods, and it’s just very clear to me that that is not the priority for them. The priority for them is taking care of trade and marketing for commodity crops. That’s fine and good, I don’t think we’re going to switch away from commodity crops overnight – I don’t have the lofty goal of breaking the system or anything like that – but I think that we can give a lot more love. Long term, we need to be moving toward the things that feed our people and the markets that have more relative stability, and the way that we do that is helping bolster those markets by giving them the advertising and PR and the events and the branding that they deserve.
We also need to be training those farmers to make those transitions, because those transitions protect our land. Producing crops that are more horticultural crops, and more small-scale crops – when farmers produce those in ways that are economically and financially stable for them, they’re actually building soil health. Building soil health helps us with erosion and helps us with runoff. We’re in this super unique time in the world where doing what is good is also what is right and is also what will make money for our farmers. Not necessarily for big, heavy industry but hardworking people could have more financial sustainability, our environment could be protected, and we could do something that makes us all feel good and have stronger communities. And when does that ever happen?
Tourism is something that we always think about here in New Orleans – it’s always on our minds. Do you see industries like agri-tourism being a means to help Louisiana farmers? Is that an untapped market we could be taking advantage of?
I think it really is. I appreciate you bringing that up because I think we think of agri-tourism as a sort of throw-away, but we hear a lot of farmers who are able to run financially sustainable operations because of agri-tourism. The cool part of agri-tourism is that not only does it help the bottom line of of the farm and make the farm more resilient, more able to keep producing what they’re passionate about producing and not have to switch into some sort of production that they don’t want to do, it also helps educate people about their food system.
What’s important about that is a lot of agri-tourism keeps money in the state in a couple of ways. It’s so much easier for a family to drive five hours for a day trip and do something cool and camp on a farm and learn about crops like rice and crawfish than it is for someone to go on a two-week vacation. We have the opportunity to be educating people in our state, keeping tourism dollars in our state, and actually having those tourism experiencing benefiting our state, instead of feeling like tourism may not necessarily make the lives of people who live in those tourism-prone areas better. Agri-tourism is a model of tourism that can be really beneficial to rural communities.
Food insecurity continues to be a problem in New Orleans. What do you see as possible solutions, and how will you help support them?
One of the things that I think we could be doing is that the Department of Agriculture and Forestry could actually be a partner in applications for federal funding to do Market Match. Market Match is the program that we’ve had for many years in the city and all over the state. A lot of market organizations have taken up the lead and the charge in applying for those federal funds and have been really successful in making sure that every market in the state that qualifies is able to get Market Match funding. These organizations do an amazing job of pursuing federal funds that help double the impact of Louisiana Purchase Card purchases at farmers’ markets.
What that effectively does is, either it cuts the price of what people buy at a farmer’s market in half, or you could say it doubles their purchasing power. If they’re swiping their Louisiana Purchase Card for $20 at a farmer’s market, they’re getting $40 at that farmer’s market to spend. And the true beauty of that program is you’re giving people this money to spend on local, fresh food. It makes farmers’ markets so much more accessible to low-income communities. Suddenly they can double up what they’re buying. Also, that money goes to farmers, who are often people who need benefits themselves. Farmers do not make a killing. Often, they don’t make a living wage. So if we’re doubling the purchasing power of low-income communities at farmer’s markets, it’s a step towards equity in the local food system.
Right now, local food systems can often feel like they prioritize people with money. Foodie culture can often feel very exclusive to low-income communities. So if we can equalize the playing field of who is getting the freshest, healthiest food by pursuing that federal funding, then I think we take a huge step towards access and food security. In the past, these organizations have pursued that funding as nonprofits; I would like to see the department really help with the list of getting low-income communities to market by helping get that federal funding.
Louisiana is already seeing its first climate refugees. If you are elected Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, what steps will you take to help the state deal with this new reality, while simultaneously advocating for a sustainable future for the State’s farms and timber industries?
I want the Department of Agriculture and Forestry to be bolstering and helping all of our extension agents and all of our existing agricultural programs in retraining farmers in farming more sustainably. I would also like to be exploring as a state, the possibility of paying people to be carbon farmers – paying people to sequester carbon from the air into the soil.
I think that cap-and-trade as a model for stopping climate change is a starting point, not the whole answer. If we’re carbon trading and we’re carbon farming, that still means that someone is emitting a whole lot of carbon. I think that people who understand and think very deeply about this issue understand that is a fundamental flaw in the idea that we would be trading carbon credits because the caps are often set too high to make a really meaningful change.
I believe that as a state that produces, I believe, the fifth-highest amount of carbon of any state, we have to be taking risks. I think we have to start on a process to get individual farmers to understand what their impact is on the environment, and start trying to unravel some of it and build soil health through capturing carbon, and I believe a good way to do that is to introduce carbon farming. It’s a really wonderful education program that’s also financially incentivized.
I deeply believe that we have to find ways to financially incentivize farmers to switch to more sustainable practices. The reason I believe that is I don’t think that our education system for farmers, or the intergenerational learning that many of them have gotten from family farms is skewed at all toward sustainability. I don’t think it’s really fair to take a group of people who barely make ends meet as it is, who are practicing a model of agriculture that they’ve been taught – both by our state institutions and by their families for generations – and say, “No that just doesn’t work any more and you can’t do it,” and not help them find solutions.
It’s a huge list to ask a conventional farmer to take some sort of financial risk to do what we are telling them is right, that is also something they might not necessarily buy into yet. I believe it’s the state’s job – because I believe climate change is a national emergency – to figure out how to get people to start on that path with us because we know they will see the long-term benefit once they begin to incorporate sustainability and regenerative ag into their operations.
Hemp and cannabis are both fast-growing, high-demand industries across the United States. What are your thoughts on legalized recreational cannabis, and how can these industries help the people of Louisiana?
Diversifying what we produce and having crops that are high-value crops like industrial hemp, hemp food, seed, and building material, and also cannabis are phenomenal ways for us to start building wealth in agricultural communities. Then people could, in the future, reinvest in land, maybe within their own family. Maybe we could then have people that want to stay on family land because they didn’t see their parents struggle and not pay the bills, and lose farms.
We’ve talked a lot about agriculture – now let’s pivot a bit and discuss forestry. The forest products industry represents one of Louisiana’s largest employers. How will you strike a balance between protecting this massively important resource while continuing to advance Louisiana’s interests in this area?
That’s a great question. I think that one of the things that we need to be doing is exploring how we create more sustainable forest products. We have a major export of woodburning pellets to Europe. Our state sells a great deal of woodburning pellets to Europe and Europe is buying those pellets as renewable, natural energy – as sustainable energy. And in many of the situations in which we’re creating them, they aren’t, because we’re making them from full-grown trees.
If we make those pellets from flash from forest like fallen branches, we actually can do a good job of clearing forests and selectively cutting things to make our forests safer and less susceptible to forest fires while making a more sustainable product. If we are going in and selectively cutting and picking out fallen branches for those things, we are creating jobs, but it’s slower and it is less profitable. There is going to be a compromise, in the process of that compromise we create more jobs, we create better-paying jobs if we are doing things slower and more sustainably. So I think we can explore what it looks like to have a much more sustainable wood-burning pellet industry.
I also think we can explore what it looks like to reopen our state seedling nurseries. In 2015, we closed down state-run nurseries. The state of Louisiana had these seedling nurseries that were fairly profitable – they were one of the few things that the department was doing that actually had an income. My research shows that they were pretty beloved, they created jobs, they created low-cost and oftentimes no-cost seedlings that could be distributed to foresters, to private landowners, to community members, and that was something that was helping us reforest the state as well as generating income.
I think, just as with agriculture, it’s remembering that forest health is an ongoing thing and that clearcutting isn’t always the right answer. Although, sustainably speaking, sometimes clearcutting is the right answer. Sometimes it makes more sense to let a forest regrow slowly and let the most healthy trees survive, and there are situations where selective cutting is the better option.
We need to be thinking about the carbon-capturing potential of our forests, and that also means that we could financially incentivize carbon capture for people who are maintaining forests. I think that’s the way forward. The trees of this state are our lungs. The creation and planting of trees in this state is a huge part of fighting climate change. There’s a quote from me somewhere saying that planting trees won’t even make a dent when it comes to climate change – and it won’t – but the state of Louisiana is 50 percent covered in trees, so let’s figure out how to use those trees to slow climate change and slow carbon emissions and to get toward zero carbon emissions as a state by, say, 2050, hopefully much sooner.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor whose work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_