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Congresswoman Chellie Pingree: An Organic Farmer in the House

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree: An Organic Farmer in the House

PHOTOS BY GRETA RYBUS

While many members of Congress can point to first-hand experience in farming as they weigh agriculture policy, Representative Chellie Pingree’s experience stands alone. For more than 40 years Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s First Congressional District, has owned and worked an organic farm on the island of North Haven, making her the ranking organic farmer in Congress.

During her eight years representing Maine, Pingree has made advocating on behalf of local and organic food a major focus of her legislative work. In 2013, she sponsored the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act that, among other things, expanded the use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets and doubled the value of benefits used for local foods. Pingree is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration. Within that committee’s purview is the $5 billion Agriculture Act, more commonly known as the Farm Bill, which will be reauthorized in 2018.

Pingree spoke from her Washington Office at the beginning of the new  legislative session, as Republicans assumed control of both houses of Congress and the White House.

“Washington itself is cauldron of uncertainty because it’s a president like we’ve never had before. It’s been a while since we’ve had Republican control of everything. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen with the Farm Bill, what the budgets will look like this year, what the priorities will be,” she said. “It’s about as uncertain and chaotic as anyone has ever seen.” TO MARKET

You just returned from spending the break on your farm. Tell me about it.

I live on an island off the coast of Maine. I first came there in 1971. After college I moved back to the island again and started my first farm in 1976. I had three dairy cows, 100 chickens, a big market garden. In those days, people didn’t really put a high priority on organic. I now run a slightly bigger operation, which is on the same island. We took over a historic farm and brought it back to good health and are also working on that. We have about eight greenhouses, so we grow a lot of our crops in four-season greenhouses. We sell at farmers markets. We run a farm stand and we own a restaurant. So our biggest customer is really our own restaurant where we sell meals. Some nights we’re serving 250 in the restaurant and another 60 or 70 in our barn (at farm dinners). Technologically, I’m still an organic farmer but I’ve come a long way in learning techniques that will enhance what we grow. Today, people will go out of their way to find something that is organically grown or locally grown. It’s wonderful to see how the marketplace has developed so much.

What took you from farmer to Congress?

I’d run a small business for many years along with having the farm. I got interested in local politics, like the school board. Someone recruited me to run for the [state] legislature. When I first went to the Maine legislature, I was particularly interested in health care, but then I also got to serve on the Ag Committee and got very involved in that. Maine has term limits in the legislature; otherwise I would probably just have stayed in the Maine legislature forever. Then several years later when a member of Congress from this particular district retired, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great chance to get back into it again and maybe do more at the federal level on polices and issues I care about.’

I feel like in the eight years I’ve been here there haven’t been a lot of members of Congress who are focused on food issues, agricultural issues, this dramatic change that’s going on with the expansion of markets or consumers’ focus on eating healthier food or wanting more organic foods. I feel like it’s been a great opportunity to play a role in getting that included in things like the Farm Bill or making public policy. Frankly, I wish we had more emphasis on them. 

How does your experience as a farmer influence your interest in agricultural policy?

It’s nice to be able to have the hands-on experience of what’s happening in the market. In recent years, going through the Food Safety Modernization Act, which had a lot of challenges for small and organic farmers, I could talk directly to the FDA and say, ‘Wait a minute, if I had to test my water that many times a summer just for irrigation, I’d go broke.’ I don’t want to mischaracterize it. It’s not because I’m trying to save my own farm, but I’m trying to represent this is what small- and medium-sized farmers are going to deal with. 

You are very involved in the Farm Bill.  Do you think people really understand the importance of that bill?

People hear about the Farm Bill and it’s kind of this distant thing or it looks complex. Their one feeling is it gives too many subsidies to big agriculture and not enough to help out the things that they want. Overall, that is absolutely true. The federal government sets a lot of policies that people don’t realize have an impact on how much corn syrup is in the food they’re feeding their kids or why soda is so cheap when fruit juices cost more money. I think that a lot of our diet has been shaped by agriculture policy over the past 50 years. We know that a lot of it hasn’t necessarily been healthy. We subsidize a lot of the wrong stuff and we don’t make it easy for people to access as much fresh healthy food as they should be eating. We haven’t always had the right nutritional guidelines to make sure people don’t have too much sodium and too much processed food in their diet. There’s a lot that happens, but it’s so hard for people to pick out. 

What are some of things you will be focusing on as the Farm Bill comes together?

Some of the programs that we care about are ones that help get young farmers access to capital to be able to even buy farmland, conservation programs that help farmers to use better techniques to build up the quality of their soil or have less runoff. We’re very big on research and are pushing very hard to get the USDA to do more organic research. Currently, less than 1% of the USDA’s budget goes to organic research. There’s a shortage of organic commodities from corn, wheat, fruits, everything. Even the big fruit companies can’t get enough organically grown food, particularly that’s grown in America. We’re very interested in programs like SNAP and making sure that people who rely on SNAP are getting fresh, healthy food.

We’re literally now working on an agenda and collecting ideas from advocacy groups. We’ve been having meetings in our own district, talking to farmers about what programs work for them, where they could use more assistance. Also, we look for programs where we can find colleagues on the other side of the aisle and in other regions who also can see the need for what we care about.

As you are advocating on behalf of organic and local foods, do you have to convince people that those are important concerns?

I think there is a certain amount of perception that organic food is a Berkeley [California], New York City kind of thing, an elitist interest. But the truth is—and I always talk about this when I’m talking to a group about the growth of markets around agriculture and the opportunities—that in retail stores today, locally grown and organic food are literally some of the only places where growth is happening. And Walmart, one of their stated goals is to be the largest retailer of organic food in the country. Walmart wouldn’t be doing that if their customers of all economic levels weren’t pushing for that. We’ve done polling that shows that Republicans and Democrats have almost no difference in their opinions in believing people should have access to fresh and healthy food and that they would choose to buy organic and locally grown if they could. The truth is this growth in the marketplace is happening everywhere. It’s created huge opportunities for farmers today. 

Has the growth of the organic market been especially good for New England?

I think rural parts of New England have benefited from this tremendously and Maine, obviously being the most rural of the New England states, has seen the greatest opportunities. We’re one of the few states in the country where the average age of our farmer is stabilized or going down and where we have new farms coming under cultivation. We’re kind of bucking the trend. Farmers in the Midwest are getting old so fast there’s a big concern about just replacing the farmers that we need. In rural New England overall it’s created a lot of economic opportunities in communities that were starting to lose the capacity to have a gas station or a café, or to keep the population in the schools. Now there are more and more reasons for families and young families to want to live there. But similar things are happening in the Northwest. So, when I talk about stuff like this in the committee, I just don’t do it from an ideological point of view to say, ‘You ought to eat organic foods.’ I like to talk to the Agriculture Committee about how these are economic opportunities for our farmers. If we don’t grab [the opportunities], companies are going to buy stuff in Canada or South Africa or the Ukraine. I was literally just talking to the Blueberry Association and there’s a glut in the blueberry market right now. The only farmers who aren’t suffering from this low, low price are the ones who have organic blueberries. 

You sponsored a bill to standardize expiration labels on food as a means of reducing food waste. What inspired you to approach those as joint problems?

I didn’t start out thinking food waste was a big issue to tackle. Then a couple of years ago we went to a conference where somebody talked about it and we started understanding that 40% of the food in this country is wasted. That makes people feel awful because we have a lot of people who are hungry and we should be making sure they can access it. It’s also an environmental issue. It’s a municipal waste issue. It adds to greenhouse gases and wastes water at a time when there’s not enough water available.

We did an omnibus bill that looked at everything from making it easier for retailers to donate food that wasn’t going to get sold to helping communities to pay for composting. We pulled out the labeling bill because it was a small bite of the apple. It was something that everybody understands. No matter how many times I’ve spoken about this, every time I say to a group, “Do you have a disagreement in your home where one person looks at the label and says we should throw it away and another person says ‘No, this is perfectly good?’” Most people don’t realize that labels don’t have some USDA standard behind them. They don’t mean anything. They’re something the companies or the food processor puts on there. But a lot of times you can’t tell if it is the date you’re supposed to throw that away or if it’s the date I’m supposed to buy it in the store. So we just wanted some uniformity. We wanted it to be a label that said, “Best if used by” or “Throw me away” after this date, if it’s something that really was dangerous. We’ve had a lot of support from the big food companies and certainly retailers. We could help to eliminate a lot of food waste if we made those standards uniform. I think we’ll get that done.

The worlds of Washington, DC, and North Haven, Maine, are very different. What do you miss most when you’re away from the farm?

Oh, man. I miss the fresh air, walking around in boots and jeans. I miss getting my hands dirty and working outdoors. It’s hard to replace when you’re working at a desk job and have to wear a dress-up suit every day. There’s plenty to miss. And the food tastes better. Food off our farm tastes good all year round. And frankly, food in Maine tastes good because we just have such wonderful farmers throughout our state, year-round farmers markets, our restaurants are 10 times better because they’re creative and edgy. I miss it all. TM

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