Chris Pawelski stirs the muck
Political insanity revealed in 'Muckville: Farm Policy, Media and the Strange Oddities of Semi-Rural Life'
By Ginny Privitar
GOSHEN — Chris Pawelski, a fourth-generation Orange County onion farmer, once offered a bag of onions for sale on eBay for $150,000. He didn’t get any buyers. But his stunt was picked up by other news outlets and drew attention to the need for an adhoc crop loss program for the Eastern Seaboard after Hurricane Irene leveled crops.
It focused attention on the plight of farmers like himself, caught between the havoc wreaked by weather and the sometimes bewildering agricultural policies of the government.
Pawelski makes two to three trips a year to Washington, D.C., to advocate for farmers. When he’s out in the field on the tractor, he’s just as likely to be on the phone to someone in government. He even sued the USDA in Federal Court over crop insurance policy. He’s been interviewed, filmed and quoted by diverse sources including Crain’s New York Business, The New York Times, CNN, the CBS Evening News, BBC World Service News, and Univision, and been featured in The Hindu, the largest English-speaking newspaper in India.
He’s lobbied lawmakers and cabinet members, including Senator Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and current Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. He was even quoted in an article in Vogue about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was at his farm for a farm bill meeting.
Now Pawelski can add another title to his resume: author. He’s written an often funny, readable, and informative book about his experiences: "Muckville: Farm Policy, Media and the Strange Oddities of Semi-Rural Life." He describes it as a memoir — “An inside look at a farmer’s fight to influence ag policy in Washington D.C., and the oddities of life that happen along the way.”
He manages to explain government policy madness in easy-to-understand prose that will have you shaking your head in disbelief.
After a severe hailstorm in 1996, when the Orange County onion crop was devastated and farmers wanted to destroy the ruined crop, the government insisted on continuing to maintain it until they finally gave the go-ahead to destroy it. Pawelski’s book details the folly:
“Roughly 2,500 acres were directly hit by the hailstorm and all of the farmers impacted wanted to quickly destroy the crop and minimize their losses. But, we couldn’t do that. And what prevented us? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)....
In fact, not only were the farmers in our valley told that we could not destroy our crop and cut our losses, which again would have been the smart production move, but we were told we had to continue to care for the crop, to continue to spray it with fungicides and insecticides, to keep it free from weeds, etc., and if we did not care and maintain our crop we ran the risk of voiding our insurance claim and payment. So, even though the smart production practice, the wise farming decision would be to destroy the onions and cut our losses the USDA said no, we had to do the opposite, pour more money into it, or else.”
He can tell you, too, how the large chain stores dictate what kinds of onions they’ll buy, even if the size they want is not suited to growing conditions here. He also wonders why onion farmers here get $7.50 for a 50-pound bag of onions — only a little more than the $6 they received 30 years ago, in 1983.
Thanks to the ravages of weather and the government, Pawelski is in debt. He’d like to get his book published, and would welcome backers or an interested publisher.
A background in broadcasting
Pawelski started out on a very different career path, but one that made him uniquely suited for his present.
He attended the University of Iowa, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in broadcasting and film studies. He taught there for two years and also taught some summer semesters at Northwestern University, back in the 1980s.
However, he found himself drawn back to farming, back to Orange County. He and Eve took up farming on 50 acres, alongside his father and brother’s land, in 1993.
But as he says, his degree has come into play in dealing with the media.
“I’m using it extensively for that, not the way I expected it to be," he said.
He and his wife, Eve, have spent a good deal of the last 16 years involved with public policy advocacy on behalf of farmers and agriculture. He credits his wife with being an equal partner in bringing about some startling improvements in our agricultural policy.
“Nothing I’ve done has been by myself; everything is done jointly with my wife, Eve.” Eve works for the Chester school district, and her salary is an important counterpoint to the financial vagaries of farming.
“We’ve had seven 50-year floods in the last eight years,” Pawelski said, “I’m $250,000 in the hole due to those floods.”
Pawelski estimates that, since 1996, approximately 15 to 20 onion farmers have left farming in the county.
He would like to see the waterways dredged to avoid repeated crop destruction, including the Roundout creek and Hudson and Walkill Rivers.
“The last comprehensive study was done in 1983, and they recommended dredging," he said. "At the time, Congress didn’t have the money. The Army Corps of Engineers said they’d come back, but they didn’t.”
The Pawelskis are responsible for a $10 million earmark specifically for Orange County onion farmers in the 2002 Farm Bill), changes in crop loss policy, and the creation of a new $50 million Conservation on Muck Soils program passed in the 2008 House version of the Farm Bill, but not the Senate version. It is currently under consideration for inclusion in the 2014 Farm Bill. They’ve brought about changes to the onion crop insurance policy, including doubling the insured expected market price. Chris even testified before the US Senate Ag Committee on crop insurance reform in 2010.
One after another
In 2011, the Pawelskis' onion crop was wiped out by Hurricane Irene, prompting the eBay experiment. But that wasn't their first brush with disaster. In 1996, the Pawelskis' crop was wiped out by a hailstorm. Other weather-related disasters occurred in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
In 1996 the couple began to work with elected officials to secure special appropriations for onion farmers in Orange County. Finally, after six years of hard work spearheaded by then-Congressman U.S. Rep. Ben Gilman, the $10 million special earmark passed in the 2002 Farm Bill. As Pawelski said, “The night we learned it finally would be included and passed I cried like a baby. But I also told my wife that I knew, all along, we would succeed.”
Pawelski is effective in the halls of government. He doesn’t just complain, he comes up with solutions. And he knows how to get things done. As legislator Tom Pahucki, when asked what makes Pawelski so effective, said, “His genuine concern for the betterment of the agriculture industry makes him who he is. He works very hard for the people in agriculture and is effective. If it weren’t for him a lot of the policies in place and on the drawing board wouldn’t be there, except for him."
Maire Ullrich, Agriculture Program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension has known Pawelski for years. She said, “He’s helped other farmers by providing information to legislators about the realities... His education is in communication, so he’s very adept at making an argument and [has] all the skills and art that go with that. He’s outgoing, willing to work with every legislator. He’s very knowledgeable about the government system and how it works. It’s his personality and intelligence that builds his effectiveness."
Rick Zimmerman, former Director of Public Policy for the New York Farm Bureau, and now a private consultant and agriculture advocate, said, “He’s very passionate, very intelligent and makes it his business to understand the details of the issues he get engaged with and one thing that distinguishes him from others is that he comes up with solutions to problems; some of the issues are very complex but through his understanding he can formulate issues that are reasonable and solve the problems. He works hard to find solutions and advocates for solutions.”
But perhaps his best accolades were offered by his wife, Eve:
“Much of what Chris does heavily involves his day-to-day networking to educate local, state and federal representatives, as well as the media, on policies that will improve the conditions for farmers and their workers. It is Chris’s consistent, unrelenting dedication to help farmers that I see from very early in the morning ‘til late at night that I am most proud of. More than one person has asked me over the years when he sleeps.
“The amount of effort he has put into agricultural labor issues over the years on state and federal levels is phenomenal. Most recently, he has written a white paper detailing changes to the guest worker program, which are currently under consideration for inclusion in immigration reform. It takes years to effect change. It is Chris’s ability to conceive of realistic solutions to agricultural problems and then relentlessly work to see them implemented that consistently amazes me. Without him I would have grown tired and quit a long time ago. He never seems to tire.”
The Pawelskis plan to begin planting this year’s onion crop by the end of the week. Of course, that depends on the right weather conditions. If they plant and it stays cold and or gets too dry, the soil could dry out, and some of it can blow away. Pawelski monitors different weather blogs and websites. It’s safe to say that this week, as always, he'll be keeping an eye out.
Editor’s note: Chris Pawelski’s can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/ChrisPawelski?feature=mhee or reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ChrisPawelski.
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