The election for Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry tends to fall off the radar of even the most politically informed. However, as the devastating effects of climate change dangle on the cusp of becoming officially insurmountable—and as food justice, labor justice, and the justice system itself remain in disrepair—this government position is not to be ignored. Things are collapsing, and food and our environment are at the center of all things, always. Marguerite “Margee” Green recognizes this, and her platform as a commissioner hopeful reflects as much, focusing on recreational cannabis use, sustainable forestry, locally resilient food economies, and full-spectrum policies to combat climate change. She’s been in the local farming game for well over a decade, and has been a force for social change in New Orleans through the lens of food all the while. Her bid for Commissioner of Ag is not a divergence from this righteous path, but presses onward into the depths of a broken system, in the hopes that she can fix a thing or three before it’s too late.
I originally met you through GNOGA (The Greater New Orleans Growers’ Alliance) and you were working at the NOCCA institute’s Press Street Gardens at the time. I know you’ve since gone on to work at SPROUT [NOLA] and with the New Orleans Flower Collective. And you sell your own flowers as well, right?
Yeah, I have a flower farm, Fat River Flowers. It is cover cropped for the campaign, so we’re not trying to be 20 people at once. But I operate on a little over an acre in New Orleans East, same property as the VEGGI co-op.
What were you doing before Press Street, in terms of farming or farming-adjacent stuff?
I started my business farming during my senior year of college for agriculture at LSU, and I’ve pretty much always held some sort of nonprofit or educational job concurrently with having a farm. Immediately before Press Street, I was a teacher with TREE (Teaching Responsible Earth Education). It’s an environmental science non-profit. It’s out in Jean Lafitte National Park, teaching fourth graders about the living environment in a national park, which was cool, and then I was farming at the same time. I’ve also been a horticulturist at a nursery, a bartender, and often a waitress as well. I think I quit my last bar job a year ago.
You’re all for adult access to cannabis use?
I’m all for it, yeah.
How would this be a boon to Louisiana agriculture and our economy?
The current medical system that we have is really broken, and I think that’s why a lot of people have asked me, “Don’t you think you have a better chance of winning if you just promise to reform the medical [marijuana] system?” And my issue with that is if we have a medical marijuana system—I try to use the word cannabis as much as possible, although it does end up getting repetitive; I wish there were another appropriate word—if we end at a medical system, that means we still have criminalization, because you have to have a way to keep people from going into a black market, so you have to keep criminalizing the product. To me that is the biggest issue. You can print this or not—it doesn’t matter to me because no one will believe me anyway—I actually don’t use. I really never have. It just gives me anxiety, it’s not my thing.
Yeah, I’m in the same boat. I haven’t smoked regularly since I was probably 22. But in the last year and a half, I have discovered CBD oil and it’s changed my life.
There it is, same here.
No THC, I don’t want it in there.
I don’t mess with THC either. I don’t use and people can choose to believe me on that or not. I know when you’re coming out hard in favor of recreational cannabis it seems like I use. It’s fine.
People are gonna put you in there.
What I believe is that we’ve criminalized people because of it, and it’s a plant and it appeals to some people and it doesn’t appeal to other people. What we need to do is be able to decriminalize and auto-expunge, which we can’t do under medical; we just literally can’t. There’s no auto expungement because you have to keep it illegal. The other thing is, with our current medical system we have two companies that have the contract to grow: Ilera Holistic Healthcare and GB Sciences. They’re both out of state, and they’re both hemorrhaging money right now because of our current commissioner [Mike Strain], so they’re going to need a comeuppance from that. I’ve heard some accounts that GB is $52 million in debt because of what’s happened here. So if we keep this system we’re going to be trying to help this Las Vegas company make a profit off of Louisiana residents for the next several years.
Can you clarify exactly what happened with medical marijuana here when it was apparently legalized in 2015?
When the Neustrom Act passed in 2015, which made growing medical marijuana legal for the third time in the history of Louisiana (the first time being 1978) it became legal. This laid out how the infrastructure would look. Two state agencies could have contracts to grow it: Southern [Universtiy] and LSU. Southern and LSU chose to contract their growing operations out to existing grow companies: one is GB Sciences and one is Ilera. Both of those companies came in and set up grow operations on behalf of LSU and Southern. Our current commissioner is anti-cannabis, and therefore he has created a lot of red tape. One of the main pieces of red tape was when one of them moved like 200-something plants from their facility to another facility to start the next round of seedlings. The commissioner said it was a breach of contract that they moved the plants, and so he nixed that crop, because they had physically moved them without approval.
What we need to do is democratize the growing of cannabis. We need to be able to make this something that business owners and farmers—not just two out-of-town companies—have access to. So, in this race we have Mike Strain, who was part of setting up this current system, so we know where he stands. And then we have [Charlie Greer] who’s running as a Democrat. He’s running on, “Aren’t you mad at Mike Strain for messing it up?” but staying medical. Then we have me, and my argument is that we have a broken system… I want people to be able to home-grow and I also think that—to make that something palatable in our state—we have to be able to have people register their plants for whatever, $15 a year, $25 a year. You have a nursery license, I’m sure?
Right, so then maybe part of your nursery license is that you can grow two plants and you can’t sell them. That way we know where it is. We’re not creating an alternate black market, we’re not creating home grow operations that are completely unregulated. But people can grow two weed plants for themselves, three, whatever.
“We have sugarcane farmers, we have cotton farmers, soybean farmers who would be just killing it if we could incentivize them to farm sustainably…”
Could you speak in more detail about your desire to use the cannabis industry as a vehicle to support those whose lives have been affected directly by nonviolent cannabis convictions?
I think that’s one of the most important things that we’re talking about, and this office can’t do that alone, but no office can. You have to introduce legislation.
It’s obviously a phenomenon that’s happening in other places, and I know that’s your whole point, but could you speak directly to how we could approach that differently, so that you don’t end up having a bunch of white startup techie kids opening up a shop at the same corner where other neighborhood kids used to be selling?
I like the way you just put that. We can’t continue to profit off of something that we’ve criminalized specifically Black and brown communities for, and we’re already profiting off of it as an industry. So we need to figure out how to start untangling and undoing some of the stuff that we have systematically done forever. So there’s two parts. One is auto expungement; we need to be pushing for auto expungement in this state for everybody who has a petty, nonviolent drug-related offense. It’s the first part of equity that we should be pursuing, so people aren’t continuing to have their lives affected by having a weed charge. One of the main reasons for that, to me at least, is that we know that Black communities are policed at an eight-times-higher rate [than white communities], when we also know that the difference between how much smoking or ingestion is happening is statistically insignificant between Black and white communities.
The second part of that is having an equity framework for how people grow and who gets the licenses to grow. We’re blessed in that other places have trailblazed for us and we can just, if we want, take their models and reuse them, or we can make one that fits us. Either is great. I have taken some time to poke around, specifically the Bay Area’s equity model, which is for their community, right? It makes sense; their community is so gentrified, they’re trying to prevent the same thing.
Isn’t that where inequity through legalization of cannabis has been worst?
Exactly. It’s what people are starting to try to address.
Because they’re a few years into it already, and trying to fix what they got wrong.
For licensure priority, I like it because it takes into account race, but then also a lot of things about other kinds of overlapping oppressions and nativisms. So it’s people of color, it’s gender inequity, it’s also taking into account whether you went to a public school and where you’re from. It’s taking into account whether you were ever evicted. So the San Francisco framework, it literally asks if were you evicted from an apartment between 1982 and 2001 in San Francisco, and that gives you points towards getting a license.
I think there are a lot of people who are going into one space of the weed industry, which is like maybe the black market weed industry, and they’re seeing that most of the people they’re dealing with are people of color. And then they’re going into brightly-lit conference rooms where we’re talking about the hustle of the weed business and it’s all white guys in ties, right? So I think we should take race into account; I think we should take gender into account; I also think that we should take your stake in the community into account, right? Because we know we have a beautiful climate here in Louisiana, a temperate climate. In North Louisiana we could have great production. We don’t want to be encouraging people from all over the world to come exploit our resources like we always have. We want to be able to look at people who have actually invested in our community for a long time, whether they’re native-born or they’ve been here for 20 years. I personally don’t want to see somebody who’s never evacuated for a hurricane before packing up their weed farm. I don’t want to deal with that.
Does Louisiana have a timber industry to speak of?
I love that question. Timber is our biggest industry.
No shit, yeah! We have a beautiful history of forestry industry. Currently half of Louisiana is covered in forests, which is why this position is so perfect for combating climate change. As we know, forests are one of the biggest tools in combating climate change. We have a huge forestry industry, mostly north and central Louisiana, a lot of pine. But what’s really cool about our forestry industry is that we started state nurseries in the ‘20s, these seedling nurseries. We ended up with about three, and they basically built the model for American state forestry nurseries. They were selling trees to people at low and no cost, sometimes giveaways. And they were state run, so they created a lot of jobs. They actually generated a lot of revenue. They were training grounds for foresters, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, ran them for a long time. It was kind of a beautiful model of a state program. I was avoiding the word socialism. [Laughs] It was when we were doing good things.
Mutual aid, yeah. It was like, we’re creating an industry that employs people and reforests our state—it’s perfect. By all accounts, everyone loved this program. [Mike] Strain then shut it down in 2015. There were a lot of people who were upset when it was shut down. It’s almost impossible to figure out documentation of why he did it, because it was revenue-generating. But still, we have a lovely forestry industry, and we do need to incentivize that industry to flip towards sustainable forestry models. Right now, we have a good deal of clear-cutting, whereas we need to be doing selective models because we have to be building healthier forests for the future.
Can you define what selective models are?
There’s clear-cutting, which is where you come in and you just cut everything out. Actually, I’ve read a lot of research that says some clear-cutting is actually better because what you do is you let stuff restart. But for the most part, what we want to be doing is selective cutting, so, going in, picking stuff out that’s ready for harvest, and leaving good, strong, healthy trees and replanting in the places that we’ve cut. So it’s kind of the difference between a person who’s a full-on timber baron versus a forester who, that’s their crop, it’s their industry, but they care about the health and future generations of foresters. So yeah, there are a lot of states that have been leading the charge—they’re of course all in the Northeast—on what it is to have a healthy timber industry that also prioritizes people and the environment. And I’d like us to be putting some more research, time, energy, money, and support towards that.
Have you read The Hidden Life of Trees [by Peter Wohlleben]?
No, I haven’t. Is it beautiful?
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. It’s this German forester explaining, in a stoically poetic way, the biology behind how trees are alive and intelligent, while also making an argument for 50-year rotations of tree harvests and sustainable forestry.
Oh god, I love that stuff. That’s the beauty, that there are so many people that have these incredibly thoughtful analyses of how we can have an industry, that there are all these models for how we can actually help people-focused industries and agriculture thrive and build a green economy. Understanding what a selective rotation to a 50-year forest is, and making sure that as we’re planting, our runoff is clean. Just thinking about this world as a system again in which we need to prioritize jobs and people being able to put food on the table and also not killing our Earth. Full-scale sustainability—it’s possible, and I love when I find another person that sounds like this guy (who gets it), where he’s like, We’re not gonna stop driving cars tomorrow but we do need to start thinking about forest maintenance.
Louisiana is likely going to see devastating and undeniable effects of climate change before most other places in the States. It already has. It seems like you’ve got actionable ideas for fighting climate change on a state-sized scale. What does that look like?
One of the first things that we need to be doing is creating a “State of the Sector” for green jobs. I think that we have to remember that this is why people are hesitant to change—they’re worried about jobs, and we have to be prioritizing showing people that as we switch towards green jobs—wind energy—that we can help transition away from fossil fuels, towards sustainable energy where no jobs are lost. One of the cool things I have realized is that we actually create some of the wind turbines that we’re sending to other states. They’re manufactured here but we keep having issues getting wind energy offshore. We need to be exploring alternate energy. We also need to be revegetating and reforesting our coasts. That creates jobs. It also creates an entire new nursery industry. We don’t have enough wetlands plants to do the revegetation that we need right now. If we funded what we need to do right now and we had the money to go out and buy plant material, that plant material would exist. We can also have grain industries that are developing, that capture carbon and make a substantial effect on climate change and bring health and prosperity to our state specifically. That’s a big one. A more sustainable forestry industry is another big one. I think that we need to be looking at what it looks like to hike up taxes for our gas and oil industries. We know gas and oil doesn’t pay taxes in most of our communities, and that money could go towards being able to have actual carbon trading and carbon farming for our farmers… But right now our farmers have absolutely no reason to change the systems that they’ve been using for their whole lives in order to capture carbon if we can’t even get a consensus from our state government on what carbon does… We have sugarcane farmers, we have cotton farmers, soybean farmers who would be just killing it if we could incentivize them to farm sustainably, to cover crop, to actually be trapping that carbon in the soil rather than burning shit in the field and releasing it into the air.
You think there’s a way under capitalism that the farmers would actually be profiting more while doing sustainable farming?
I do think that what we can do is move the needle enough that we can actually have those farmers join us in a fight, because people believe in the greater good, right? Like, I believe that at people’s core, we’re all morally good, across the board. What we have, though, is people who are not seeing eye-to-eye on what the impact of their livelihood is. So if we can get the state to financially incentivize people doing the right thing, then we can use that as an educational space and we’re not taking away people’s entire way of life. Then we have an actual place to start talking.
Do you see incentivizing farmers so they use more sustainable methods as an alternative to subsidies that they’re already getting? I mean, the subsidy system is so whack.
I have no control over the subsidy system because it’s federal. But you can go advocate, you can build coalitions, like state commissioners of Ag, when they come together and have an impact. When they’re separate, they do not. I believe that the subsidy system is broken and we need to rethink it. We do have a current commissioner who is actually in the rooms and on the teams with Donald Trump as he figured out this tariff and trade war. There is an ability to build federal policy as a commissioner of Ag. We cannot get people to shift their entire way of life out of nowhere towards carbon farming, but if we can pay people to carbon farm, then we can see them maybe first transition 10 of their 3,000 acres. I met a woman the other day who had transitioned, block by block, 100 acres of her 30,000 acres. She was selling food out of the back of her truck. She can’t sell her cotton or her sugar cane out of the back of her truck, but still it was clearly bringing her joy, selling specialty produce. The only reason that she’s not transitioning every single one of those acres is because she’s already taken a huge risk in changing the way her family has farmed for five generations. I can’t imagine taking that size of a risk. I cannot imagine looking in the eyes of your dad, who’s been a fifth generation Black farmer in Louisiana (where we know that Black people lose land at an alarming rate), and saying, “Let me do something risky with the only piece of equity that we have in this state.” And she’s doing that. So if we have one or two young people who are choosing to do the right thing on their own, we have to be helping motivate other people to look at their model and go, “OK. Cool.”
So this trade war that we’ve been dragged into and the tariffs therein, how does that affect farmers in Louisiana directly?
What it means is that we have a bunch of farmers with a ton of unsold soybeans. We can’t sell them to China. China uses them generally for animal feed. First of all, I think that there is no excuse for sacrificing our farmers in this way, whether they’re row crop farmers or corporate farmers or small farmers, midsize farmers. I think there’s no excuse. Essentially, farmers and agriculture makes our world tick. Throwing these people under the bus in that way is inexcusable. Mike Strain has consistently said there’s a greater purpose for whatever is happening here. There is no greater purpose. Here’s the one silver lining I can see: if we see this system collapse, we will finally be pushed to a place where we understand it can’t continue under climate change anyway. We have a broken system, it’s a house of cards, it’s going to fall eventually.
So if it happens, so much the better? Ish?
Yeah, I really hope that we don’t take this moment and then believe we can go back. I just hate the idea that whenever this is finally finished, our farmers will be like, “OK great, let’s just put ourselves in that vulnerable position again.” What we should and could be doing, even with row crops, even with soy… People eat soy, there’s plenty of market for soy. We have people who are making tofu in this city that are having to get organic soy from Tennessee. Louisiana is a huge soy producer; what if we just actually had human food-grade soy being grown in the state?
So they could easily localize it. We don’t need China.
I mean, we have rice, we have soy, we have sugar. Yes, exactly, it’s a funny thing when you’re talking about import-export, because I don’t believe in these borders but also I don’t believe in shipping food elsewhere.
What does that eliminate?
If we could really transition all these row crops that we have away from corn for fuel and soy for pigs and grain for fucking boring Kellogg’s cereal.
Also I guess free or fair trade makes sense for most value-added products on a lot of levels; but with agriculture specifically, when you are a space in the world that can grow its own food, it’s weird when you’re sending it all elsewhere. That has been the collapse of civilizations over and over and over again.
Exactly. Yep. And it’s also how we move people further from the profit that they could be entitled to. When we think of how farmers do value-add on food, they’re using their labor to transform a product into something that is more valuable in a marketplace. When we start bringing so many other actors into that, we’re removing the ability for the people who do the labor to see the profit of their hard work. So if somebody grows grain and they ship it to a factory and that factory ships it to Kellogg in the Midwest and Kellogg makes crackers, and people work in the factory where they make crackers—and now I’m getting way into labor. [Laughs] But, what is the farmer making? And the farmer might have the ability to mill grain and make a cracker, if we incentivize local economies. But instead there’s like 75 people getting abused along that value-add line and all of them are being underpaid until we get to like, the Kellogg family fortune.
So how do we end that abuse under capitalism?
Surrounding subsidies, there is one thing I want to add, which is that we have lots of ways to fix this that don’t break our current economic system, and actually create wealth and jobs and help the economy. There are so many labor problems in this country. Farmers can’t afford to pay people a living wage, because farmers themselves don’t make a living wage, so farmers can’t find help. In Colorado, they introduced a labor cost share program, where the state helps subsidize 50% of farm worker salaries in order for them to learn a trade. We have ways to do this that are good for the Earth and good for people and good for people’s businesses.
Marguerite Green is running against incumbent Michael Strain (R) and Charlie Greer (D), as well as Peter Williams and Bradley Zaunbrecher. State elections for the Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry will be held alongside gubernatorial elections on October 12. Early voting is held from September 28 to October 5. For more info on Green’s campaign, check out greenforagriculture.com.
Photograph by Adrienne Battistella
Illustration by Rachel Speck
Transcription by Michelle Pierce