Mark Ritchie is president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minneapolis, Minn., which works to keep family farmers on the land. He also serves as national co-chair of Sustainable America and director of the International Forum on Food and Agriculture, and is on the boards of Mothers and Others, Libraries for the Future, Organic Growers and Buyers Association, and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.
Monday, 11 Oct 1999
Today I am just returning to my office after an incredible weekend in New England. I have spent the last two days waking up to a mellow sun peeking out over Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Each day it took me a few moments to remember that I was not back home in Minnesota, but instead at Bretton Woods, in the heart of the White Mountains. I was staying at the Mt. Washington Hotel as part of a conference on the future of the World Trade Organization. I was there primarily to make a presentation on environment and trade, along with attorney Steve Charnovitz and New York Times international economic affairs reporter David Sanger.
Although I participate in a lot of conferences on trade and globalization issues, this one was pretty unusual for me. First, it was predominately made up of former U.S. trade representatives and people who served in similar positions in other countries such as Canada, Japan, and China. This is not exactly the crowd I normally hang with. Second, it was focused on industrial goods and services with virtually no discussion of the soon-to-be-launched WTO agriculture talks — the focus of much of my own day-to-day work. Third, I was clearly the only person who had serious doubts about the current direction of the world’s trading system — at least the only person who makes a habit of expressing these doubts in public. Despite these unusual circumstances, and perhaps even due to them, I found the session extremely thought-provoking, challenging, and rewarding.
I had been to this wonderful old hotel once before, exactly five years ago. My organization, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, sponsored a conference called Bretton Woods Revisited, where we gathered all of the surviving founders of the so-called Bretton Woods Institutions — the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. These institutions were created at an international conference of governments held at this site in the summer of 1944. We organized our conference to hear from the founders what their political intentions were at the time and what their hopes and dreams were for these institutions. We also asked these founders to give us perspective on what had gone right and what had gone wrong. It was an incredible gathering — truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me that has shaped my analysis of globalization and my vision of what could be the basis for international cooperation and solidarity. It was such a success that we decided to do similar events with the surviving founders of all of the major post-war institutions, including the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At breakfast on Sunday morning we saw a gigantic moose, one of the largest I had ever seen. It was just the motivation I needed to get packed up and out into the wilderness. My wife Nancy Gaschott and I piled into our rental car and headed out for the Appalachian Mountain Club trail that winds its way to the top of Mt. Willard. The colors on the trees along the drive were spectacular, but nothing prepared us for how beautiful this hike was going to be, or the breathtaking view from the top.
We were lucky to have made this hike fairly early in the day. By noon it was beginning to cloud up and it then began to rain buckets just as we were heading out to Manchester, where we were to catch a plane back home in the evening. We had set aside enough time to be able to take the long, slow route back, winding down U.S. Highway 3. This route seemed to follow the beautiful Merrimack River and comes with wooden covered bridges, wild pheasants and deer along the road, beautiful lakes, and vibrant small towns.
Lovely as all of this scenery was, my mind kept drifting away from the bright red and gold trees to the three big work challenges that awaited me back in Minnesota. First, the family farm economic crisis. Second, the upcoming Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization, where government officials from around the world will soon gather to try to further deregulate global trade. Third, the fast-moving train called biotechnology, with all of its unprecedented social, economic, moral, ecological, and personal challenges.
As I start back to work this Monday morning, I am a bit tired, having arrived home around midnight, but I am still filled with the magic of that New England fall spectacle.
Tuesday, 12 Oct 1999
Yesterday turned out quite differently than I was expecting. I was scheduled to have an all-day meeting with a colleague working on factory farm livestock issues at the Center for Livable Futures at Johns Hopkins University. His flight got cancelled the night before, so he wasn’t able to get out to Minnesota. It was a disappointment for sure, but what a gift — a whole day suddenly opened up that I had not been planning for.
First, I had to tackle the piles of paper and mail that had backed up while I was gone. Luckily it was Columbus Day, so there was no delivery of new mail. Then there were the couple hundred emails that had drifted in over the course of the weekend that needed to be put somewhere. Once I got these daily chores out of the way, I was able to feel the luxury of having time to do what I wanted. What I wanted was to reconnect with some of my colleagues here at the Institute.
One of the disadvantages of being centered in Minnesota is that I have to travel more than I would like. Being gone from both my family and my friends at work is a drag, but it seems like a necessary evil. With a staff of more than 30 here at IATP, it is hard enough to keep up with what is going on when I am here most of the time. When I am traveling, it feels impossible.
I took the time on Monday to talk to a number of folks that I had not seen in a while and to meet with a couple of new staff members and interns. One aspect of my job that I do not like is the schizophrenia of the different hats that I have to wear — fundraiser, program director, staff leader, strategic planner, financial manager, and mentor. Some days I just want to bite into program work and not have to worry about everything else, but that is not possible during this period of time.
What comforts me somewhat in this dilemma is that we are three years into a 10-year plan to replace the first generation of leadership at IATP, starting with me, with the next generation. During this next seven years, we will continue to hire younger people into key leadership positions and prepare for the transition. In this time we will also be conducting a capital campaign to buy a second building and creating an endowment fund for program innovation.
Toward the end of the day, I had the delight of meeting someone that a mutual friend, Carolyn Raffensperger from the Science and Environmental Health Network, had connected me to, David Wallinga of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Public Health Program. David is a doctor working on key pesticide issues for NRDC, and is a Minnesota native now living in Washington. It was a wonderful meeting, and opened up a lot of new directions for work, potential collaboration, and some new ways of thinking abou
t the world for me. These gifts of connection are perhaps life’s most precious.
Today I fly down to St. Louis for two days of meeting with grassroots groups working to protect the Mississippi while boosting hard-hit rural economies. I have been part of a small group that has put together a project call Headwaters to Backwaters designed to both highlight the spectacular biological diversity and beauty of the entire Mississippi River corridor and promote the incredible work of all the groups up and down the river working to protect this natural heritage. One of the target audiences of this project is opinion-leaders on both coast, like members of Congress and foundation staff, who tend to think of the Midwest region as a corn and soybean desert. I will be visiting some of the key groups working to protect the confluence region where the Missouri River flows into the mighty Mississippi.
Wednesday, 13 Oct 1999
Today I am on the second day of a trip to the far southern end of the state of Illinois to look at innovative forestry and agroforestry projects in and around the Shawnee National Forest. It took nearly half a day to get here, but it was worth it.
The Shawnee National Forest, like many in the Eastern United States, was created during the Great Depression out of abandoned or distressed farmland that was bought at inexpensive prices and then allowed to return to forests or wetlands. It encompasses about 280,000 acres, roughly one-third of the forestland that stretches across southern Illinois from Missouri to Indiana, just above Kentucky. This is rough, wild country with incredible biodiversity, beauty, and, to someone from Minnesota, very enviable stands of hardwoods. The colors, I might add, are brilliant.
We arrived around noon yesterday and headed out to tour an important demonstration project being conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in the river bottoms along the Mississippi. Land that had been planted mostly in soybeans, when it wasn’t flooded, has been bought and is being planted in oaks, ash, cypress, and some wetland grasses. The Forest Service has acquired nearly 6,000 acres of river bottoms and is converting the land away from flood-damage-prone soybeans to flood-tolerant forests, swamps, marshes, and prairies. It is a fantastic project that deserves a great deal of attention and positive rewards. All afternoon long I kept seeing turkey vultures soaring overhead, while the white pelicans and egrets gathered their food in the many small bodies of water that have been created as part of this project.
Tonight I am sleeping at the Giant City State Park outside Carbondale, Ill. There is a beautifully graceful water tower here that has a winding staircase which you can climb to get a breathtaking view of the entire valley overlooking the Mississippi — one of America’s most undervalued treasures.
Today we will be meeting with two or three other biological diversity and sustainable forestry groups in the southern Illinois and Missouri regions and then I will head back to Minneapolis. Unfortunately, I have to be back for tomorrow because I scheduled in a lot of meetings. If I could stay in this region just one day longer, I would head out west of St. Louis to visit the gigantic Native American Indian mounds and pyramids.
The rest of the week will be jammed with meetings about the upcoming World Trade Organization ministerial conference coming to Seattle the last couple days of November this year. IATP and lots of other groups are getting geared up for major protests, seminars, and other events in Seattle during this time. I will talk more about this later in the week, but if readers would like to know more in the meantime, they can go to the IATP website or the sites of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development and WTO Watch. For the latest info on events planned for Seattle, check out the ICTSD calendar.
Thursday, 14 Oct 1999
Yesterday was incredible! I started out the day up on the water tower at the Giant City State Park campground in southern Illinois, watching the sunrise over the crimson and gold Shawnee National Forest. We drove up a series of back roads, through old French settlements and tiny rural villages to a spot near Cape Girardeau where we met the organizers of an innovative forestry project. Soybean and corn farms in floodplains are being converted into cottonwood plantations for fine papermaking. There are a number of interesting ecological benefits, but most importantly it looks like this could be a much more stable and remunerative form of agriculture for many of the hard-hit producers in the area.
We looked at converted cropland out in the Mississippi, near the confluence with the Ohio River, and talked about ways that small farmers could get the capital they need to convert from money-losing row cropping to profitable agroforestry. There are many questions that remain to be investigated with an approach like this, but the farm crisis is getting worse each week. I am open to looking at a very wide range of alternatives and options that satisfy our commitment to economic, social, and ecological sustainability.
After a full morning of looking at these projects, we headed up the Mississippi River toward St. Louis, with stops along the way to look at historical sites, like the reconstructed Fort de Chartes. There are many absolutely beautiful little towns along the way, including Chester, Waterloo, and Kaskaskia, the first capital of Illinois. Along the same route, however, there are also several ghost towns where the flood wiped out almost everyone. Driving along the bluffs with the river on one side and beautiful fall leaves on the other was a fantastic way to enjoy the mad dash back to the airport.
Fortunately, I missed my plane, so we had a chance to visit historic St. Charles, the first capital of Missouri and a wonderful riverfront town. Fortunately, there was a later flight, so I still got home to my own bed last night.
Today will be fun. IATP helped organize a meeting of biotech activists from around the world last week that ended up being the subject of a long and most favorable article in the Wall Street Journal. I have a stack of media calls to return, most of which I assume were generated by the article.
We are in the midst of final preparations for the World Trade Organization ministerial conference coming up soon in Seattle, so every few days we are having meetings among the dozen or so staff that will be participating. This morning we will be getting a report from our staff out in Seattle and then planning ways to fit all of the wonderful meetings and events that everyone wants to organize in Seattle into the limited amount of time that is available. Instead of working so hard to clone Mother Nature, some of the soon-to-be-unemployed genetic engineers might want to try cloning Father Time!
Later today I will be meeting with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association to discuss alternative farm policies that can boost farm income while protecting the environment, having lunch with an old friend about to leave for Romania to work in the U.S. embassy, and then meeting the parents of one of my colleagues. I have to chair a Sustainable America board meeting phone call around mid-day and should return a pile of phone calls, but it should be reasonably sane. I like these kinds of days — when I am not traveling, when I am doing some serious planning and taking time to keep up with the lives of my fri
ends and colleagues.
Tomorrow, however, will not be like today. At 5:45 a.m. I head off to Ohio where I will be meeting with two different watershed organizations trying to see what they can do to simultaneously address the farm crisis and the water-quality problems they are facing. My plan is to be done by the end of the day so I can fly home for the weekend, but I will just have to see how it goes! I am sure it will be stimulating, but not nearly as relaxing as today.
Friday, 15 Oct 1999
I have been planning today for quite some time. I will be flying down very early to Cincinnati, Ohio, and then driving up toward Columbus to meet with a group of Riverkeepers who are working to protect their river. They are aware of the many problems facing family farmers on the economic front and want to see if there are better ways to combine strong protection of the environment with help for family farmers during their economic crisis. I met these folks last spring at a training session for Riverkeepers from all over the U.S. and Latin America. I served on the faculty for the session, covering some of the key agriculture, trade, and conservation economics issues.
Later today I will drive a little further east, into the Darby River Watershed, to have dinner with the leaders of a grassroots group that has sprung up recently in opposition to an attempt by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take over about 50,000 acres of land in the watershed — roughly half the land. There is strong opposition among landowners to this proposal, prompting a huge public outcry. At the same time, this has served as a wake-up call for some of the local leaders who know they need to go on the offensive by developing their own plans for promoting greater conservation and habitat protection. Several of these leaders attended a conference that IATP organized last summer, in conjunction with the American Water Works Association, on ways that water utilities have provided financial support to farmers working to transition toward more sustainable and safe production practices.
One of the key speakers at that conference was a farmer from the Catskills region of New York who told the very moving story of how their land was about to be seized by the New York City water agency and how they fought to keep it. In the end, this battle eventually led to a cooperative agreement between the city and the farm organization to both keep the families on the land and improve the ecological performance of the farming practices. It is a very inspiring story and had a big impact on some of the farmers from Ohio attending the conference.
We are meeting tonight to see if there is a way to turn this huge fight in Ohio into some kind of a “win-win” agreement like in the Catskills. It is a long shot, given the current level of anger and mistrust, but that is exactly how it started in the Catskills and eventually there was a positive outcome.
Before I fly out today, I am in my office taking care of one piece of work that I have to do almost every day — the email. I get way too many messages, around 200 per day, but I get so much information and perspective from this flood that I try to keep up as best I can. I manage a few of IATP’s couple dozen list servs on various environmental, food, trade, and biotech issues, including one on the upcoming World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and one for biotech activists. It can be overwhelming, but the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for organizing and action. I just hope we can perfect the social skills it will take to make certain that these tools serve us, not enslave us. IATP has a division that provides computer and Internet services to other nonprofits, which has some of the most talented and committed technology people I have ever met. Each day they provide me with the gift of these tools and new ways to use them. I just hope that I can stay young enough in my attitude to really make use of them.
I will fly back late tonight instead of staying over because I have to put up the storm windows tomorrow. In Minnesota we get a couple of warnings about the coming winter, and now I am on borrowed time. If I don’t want to be climbing a 24-foot ladder in the snow, I need to get this job done this weekend. Signing off — thanks for listening!