With Food Democracy Now, Iowan Dave Murphy Is Challenging Corporate Farming

Dave Murphy, at an abandoned family farm near his home in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Dave Murphy, at an abandoned family farm near his home in Clear Lake, Iowa. (David Peterson - for The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dave Murphy is the founder of a food advocacy group. But he wants you to know, "in no uncertain terms," that he is not a foodie. Foodies are people who obsess about the perfect apple tart. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But for Murphy, the fight for good food isn't about pleasure or aesthetics; it's about justice and survival.

Three years ago, he left a good job in Washington to return home to Iowa, where a Minnesota corporation was threatening to build a nearly 5,000-head hog farm near his sister's home. "This is not something abstract," he said. "This is about people I know. People I went to high school with. When you speak to people from Berkeley or Manhattan, people on the coasts, it's a really different ballgame."

Like famous Berkeley, Calif., activist Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse, Murphy dreams big. But the tactics he employs are very different. Waters raises awareness through prime-time television appearances, star-studded charity dinners and the rustic meals she serves at her restaurant. Murphy uses grass-roots community organizing methods, such as petitions and action alerts.

The first campaign by Murphy's nonprofit group, Food Democracy Now, was a petition calling for more sustainable food policies and suggesting six progressive candidates for secretary of agriculture last November. After the secretary was appointed, he added a list of 12 candidates for key deputy and undersecretary positions. To date, two of the so-called sustainable dozen have received key appointments. Kathleen Merrigan, a professor at Tufts University who helped develop national organic standards, was appointed deputy secretary. Doug O'Brien, an assistant director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, will be Merrigan's chief of staff.

"It's hard to tweak out what impact [the petition] made and on whom, but it certainly got a lot of attention," said Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, one of the six candidates suggested by the petition and an informal adviser to the USDA. If nothing else, Hamilton said, the Obama administration would have had some explaining to do if no progressive candidates had even been considered.

Murphy doesn't aim to supplant food activists on the coasts. They share many of the same concerns. But his work -- he has collected nearly 90,000 signatures for his petition -- has drawn attention to the Midwestern advocates who are often overshadowed by big-city chefs. That could be a boon for the burgeoning food movement's efforts in Washington. Iowans aren't vulnerable to the same charges of elitism as chefs in Berkeley or New York's Hudson Valley, and they have seen firsthand the consequences of factory farms. They also are well positioned to lobby powerful voices on Capitol Hill: Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack served two terms as Iowa's governor.

Murphy, 40, runs Food Democracy Now out of his home in Clear Lake, a town of 10,000 that is a 90-minute drive from the nearest natural food co-op or Whole Foods Market. Though he is a fifth-generation Iowan, Murphy never saw agriculture as his calling. After college he moved to New York, where he got a master's degree in creative writing. When writing novels wouldn't pay the bills, he moved to Washington and found a job as a technology consultant at the Department of Labor.

In July 2006, Murphy's sister Chris called him with bad news. A corporation had applied to build a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, for thousands of hogs near her family farm. Besides her general objections to the sight, sounds and smells of an industrial hog operation, Chris worried that her two children's severe asthma would be exacerbated by the fumes. She asked him to come home. "I thought, I cannot do this. This is the first well-paying job I've had in my life. I have student loans," Murphy remembered. But eventually, he agreed to go for a few months.

Murphy helped defeat the CAFO application. But he never returned to Washington. His outrage about industrial agriculture's impact continued to grow. He took a series of political organizing jobs. In 2007, he planned an Iowa presidential summit where five of the six Democratic candidates laid out plans to sustain rural America. When Barack Obama secured the nomination, he worked with the candidate's agriculture team.

Murphy was thrilled when Obama won in November. But just weeks after the election, rumors began to swirl about the shortlist for secretary of agriculture: former Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota and Vilsack, who eventually got the job. None had the sustainable credentials that Murphy and other food advocates had hoped for.

Advocates discussed their own, progressive list of candidates but, to many, it seemed a little like pie in the sky. Murphy was undeterred, however. The weekend before Thanksgiving, he officially formed Food Democracy Now. He drafted the petition and the shortlist of six candidates. Ninety high-profile supporters, including pork producer Bill Niman, essayist Wendell Berry and Waters, signed on. Murphy was "the head of the spear," said Marlene Halverson, an animal welfare activist and one of the original signers. "Where other groups thought it would be futile, he just went ahead and did it."

Within four days, 14,000 people had signed the petition. More than 70,000 had signed when Murphy requested a meeting with new secretary Vilsack, who, despite Murphy's early reservations, had surprised him with his openness and candor. After the meeting, Murphy called Vilsack the "right individual to meet the challenges of the 21st century." Without the petition, he added, "we never would have got in the door."

Murphy has fast become a leading face, and a welcome one, in sustainable-food circles. At 6 foot 5, the former Dartmouth football star is an imposing presence. But it's his Midwestern credentials that inspire grass-roots activists. As an Iowan, he has seen the impact of corporate farming on the environment and local communities: One friend lost her family farm; another was forced to grow bigger to survive. Activists say a vocal Midwestern organization could put a face on these problems and raise awareness about heartland concerns such as the alarming spread of an antibiotic-resistant "superbug" from hogs to humans on Midwestern farms.

Food Democracy Now also could help deflect long-standing charges of elitism against the sustainable food movement, activists say. With Waters, a Berkeley chef with a 1960s counterculture pedigree, as the movement's most recognizable leader, it's been easy for opponents to portray food advocates as a bunch out-of-touch yuppies from the coastal "latte belts."

"There's definitely a role for Alice to play," said Debra Eschmeyer, who grew up in a Republican family in Ohio and is now program director for the National Farm to School Program. "But there are some that get upset when she's in the press. It gives the impression that everyone has a private foundation behind them."

Author Michael Pollan, a leading advocate who also lives in Berkeley, agrees that new voices will help counteract the movement's elitist reputation. "There's always been a strong Midwestern component to the movement, but they don't have people like Alice or people like me, with access to the media," Pollan said. "It's time they got a little more attention. And is it good for the movement that they do? Yes."

Perception gets you in the door in Washington. But it's policy that keeps you in the room. The laws that govern food policy, such as the nearly $300 billion Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that funds the school lunch program, are notoriously complex and political. "As a movement, we have not had nearly enough sophistication on policy," Pollan said. "We've been outgunned by people who understand the Farm Bill."

Equally important, Murphy says, is to recast the debate about good food from a moral battle to an economic one. Take the school lunch program, which Congress will review this year. Food activists have long argued that more fruits and vegetables from local producers should be included to help improve childhood nutrition. But Murphy says the better way to sell the idea to legislators is as a new economic engine to sustain small farmers and rural America as a whole. Talk about nutrition and you get a legislator's attention, he said. "But you get his vote when you talk about economic development."

Murphy is realistic that change won't come quickly. He knows he is battling huge, entrenched corporations with better connections and more resources at their disposal. To succeed, he must unite grassroots organizations and persuade an array of other interests -- health insurers, senior citizens and teacher lobbies, all of which have a stake in healthful eating -- to join the fight. "If you want to change the ballgame, you have to address the policies that are responsible for the system we have in place," Murphy said. "If you change policy, the market will change."

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