Cory Booker, New to Senate Ag Committee, Wants Change for Family Farmers

February15, 2021 - Booker discussed his misgivings about big agriculture during a Jan. 30 webinar during the 31st annual winter meeting of the New Jersey chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Booker’s bill, which was cosponsored by Elizabeth Warren, is designed, he said, to remedy injustices in the way America’s food is produced and marketed.

“Dr. (Martin Luther) King said so eloquently that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Booker said. “We know that injustices in our food system affect our health justice, our environmental justice, our economic justice and our racial justice.

“Organic and regenerative farmers in New Jersey and across the country are a beacon of light, I believe, showing us a way forward. But they are currently too few in number.”

Booker said independent family farmers and ranchers, both organic and traditional growers, have been under attack for the last 60 years.

“We have lost more than a million independent family farmers,” he said. “Farm debt is at an all-time high, the farmer’s share of the consumer dollar continues to dramatically decline, and I have heard heartbreaking stories of farmer suicides.”

Meanwhile, he said, large corporations squeezing farmers on every side are getting richer and richer on what he called a broken system that endangers public health by polluting the air and water in rural communities.

Booker said those corporations, which he did not name, receive massive federal subsidies as they produce unhealthful foods that contribute to diabetes, heart disease and childhood obesity. At the same time, he said, the food system underperforms for poor communities, where an estimated 14 million children go to bed hungry every night.

Booker had especially harsh words for factory farms which, he said, pollute the environment, mistreat animals, overuse antibiotics and are potentially a breeding ground for disease organisms that could flourish in confined animals, spread to humans and create the next pandemic.

The senator went on to talk about his personal journey to those strongly held beliefs. He describes himself as a big, bald vegan, born in 1969 to Cary and Carolyn Booker. Both Bookers worked for IBM and were among the company’s first Black executives. They were also activists and strong supporters of the civil rights movement. Their son attended Stanford University on a full-ride football scholarship. He left Stanford with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science in 1992. Then he went on to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and after that he came back to the States to pick up a law degree from Yale.

Following his formal education, Booker began a grittier course of learning that offered no degrees, diplomas or certificates of achievement. Booker moved to Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city and a national symbol, at the time, of urban blight. He joined a prominent law firm in the city, earning a prominent law firm’s lawyerly salary.

He rented an apartment on the 16th floor of Brick Towers, a high rise housing project in the city’s Central Ward.

The Central Ward was one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. There were drugs, crime, poverty and vermin inside and outside of Brick Towers. Booker’s car was broken into the day he moved in.

In a 2019 Politico article, Jimmy Wright, who lived in Brick Towers when Booker moved in, recalled his first meetings with his new neighbor.

“Man, Cory was a Rhodes Scholar, but he had no idea how things go down in the ‘hood,” he told the reporter. “He couldn’t tell when people were high, when people were b.s.-ing him. He had such a good heart.

“When we didn’t have hot water, Cory didn’t have hot water,” Wright, a former homicide detective with the Newark police, told Politico. “When we had mice, he had mice. It’s different when you see the poverty, the drugs, the murders. When you can’t look away. It changes you.”

In 1998, Booker won a seat on Newark’s city council. In 2006, Brick Towers was demolished and Booker bought a row house not far away in the city’s South Ward. That was also the year he was elected mayor and gave up his law practice. He served as Newark’s mayor until 2013, when he won a special election to the U.S. Senate. He has since been re-elected twice to the Senate and was recently named to the Senate ag committee.

Booker and Ralphael Warnock, a newly elected senator from Georgia, are the second and third African Americans to be named to the Ag Committee.

Booker talked to New Jersey’s organic farmers about some of the bills he has introduced. He introduced the Farm System Reform Act. His Climate Stewardship Act would pay farmers for carbon sequestration and other conservation practices. His Justice for Black Farmers Act would offer land grants and ag training to African American farmers.

Booker told his webinar listeners that there were a million Black farmers in America in the 1920s, but their numbers have shrunk to just 50,000 today.

Attribution of Photograph:  Dick Wanner New Jersey Senator Cory Booker speaks via webinar to a group of his state's organic farmers.

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