By Cameron St. Germain
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has played a variety of roles in her life including mother, farmer, politician, and small business owner. Her long history in organic farming from growing vegetables to raising livestock make her a powerful advocate for sustainable farmers.
Pingree was the first woman elected to represent the 1st district of Maine and has served on the House Agriculture Committee. She currently sits on the House Appropriations Committee, serving on the Subcommittee on Agriculture and the Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment; where she works to reform federal policy to better support American agriculture, including sustainable, organic, and locally focused farming.
Congresswoman Pingree has focused much of her time on working to positively impact many aspects of the agricultural system. Her contributions can be found in a variety of pieces of legislation including the 2014 Farm Bill, the 2017 Food Recovery Act, and the 2016 Food Date Labeling Act.
She has had numerous appointments both internationally and domestically, traveling around the states to countries like Hungary and Bosnia. Congresswoman Pingree has been awarded numerous awards including the “2017 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award” and the “2012 Woman of the Year Award” from Emerge Maine.
The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center recently had the opportunity to interview Congresswoman Pingree on a variety of topics ranging from organic agriculture to legislation on Capitol Hill.
NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): We’ve read that you’ve owned and worked an organic farm for the last 40 years. What inspired you start an organic farm?
Congresswoman Pingree (CP): It goes all the way back to reading this book “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing who were early back-to-the-landers in Vermont. In the early 1970s, a lot of people came to Maine to live off the land and farm sustainably. That is when I first came here and became interested in sustainable farming. I lived in a little cabin with no running water and electricity for a few years and decided I would be far better off if I learned a little bit more about farming and things of that nature. I went to the College of the Atlantic and started to study more about plant science and agriculture. That got me started.
FPC: Why did you choose organic when it was not necessarily in vogue?
CP: I was already an unconventional thinker. I grew up in the era of the Vietnam War. At this time, there were a lot of young people protesting the war and disagreeing with a lot of things that were going on traditionally and with the government. As I mentioned, I went to college at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine and it’s an environmental school, which was already dedicated to thinking differently about environmental issues and how we treated the earth. Therefore, I came into farming with a sort of unique perspective.
FPC: What have you grown/produced and raised in your lifetime?
CP: On my farm, I’ve grown a little bit of everything. I’ve had dairy cows, chickens, and pigs. We used to raise a lot of sheep. We’ve had all kinds of vegetables. We’ve raised and grown pretty much everything except grains or cotton and similar agricultural products. I’ve been in the position to grow a big percentage of the food my farm produces and have played a role in the preserving, canning and dehydrating of those items. If I had to, I feel like I could grow most of the items I would need for food.
FPC: What are the main ways organic farming has changed since you began working in the agricultural field?
CP: It has changed a lot. Many of the practices that are fundamental to organic farming have been changed. Fundamentally, people’s interests in buying organic food from when I got started in the 1970’s have changed as well. People thought of organics as items only sought by hippies. It was thought to only be of interest to a marginal group of individuals and now today it’s very mainstream. You can buy organic food in Walmart! People search for it and individuals know more about their food. It’s clear they are much more interested in it. Personally, I have seen a big difference in the customers that we sell to in our farm. In the mid-70’s, customers appreciated buying from a local farm, but today they really want to know how you grew it, what’s in it, and every other piece of information.
FPC: There have been many doubts surrounding the benefits of organically grown food versus the use of more conventional methods, such as a perceived lack of both added nutrition and health benefits. What do you have to say to individuals that have doubt regarding the organic industry?
CP: They’re just wrong! There is no question it is better for you to eat foods that aren’t exposed to so many pesticides and herbicides. It’s unquestionably better for the land and it’s better for preserving our topsoil. It’s better for the health of the farmer and the people who work on the farm who don’t have to handle toxic chemicals. Soil with higher organic matter, which is very important to the organic process, sequesters a lot of carbon so it is better for issues like global warming. I just think it’s a better thing to do on so many fronts. There are really no good arguments against it.
FPC: Why are organic and local foods important to a community?
CP: I have noticed a huge resurgence of people’s interest in buying food locally. Some people want organic food, but just as much, people want to go back to buying the farmer down the road. They want to support the rural economy and have the opportunity to know a farmer and where their food comes from. I think it has a large impact on communities in a lot of ways.
FPC: How did you go from being a farmer to a representative in the House? What was the trigger?
CP: I live in a very small town and had been serving on my local school board. I had no intention of getting any more involved in politics than that–I had three kids so I wanted to be involved in the school–but a woman who had bought vegetables at my farm stand contacted me and said that they couldn’t find a candidate for the state legislature in my district. She asked if I would I run. At first I said no; I was busy, had kids, and a business. And then, something changed and I figured it would be something good to do. It was 1992 when I went into the state legislature and I guess that has sort of grown my interest in becoming a part of public policy making ever since.
FPC: How does owning a working farm impact your legislative viewpoint?
CP: I feel like I can speak with more authority about the changes in the marketplace. Like I said, my customers over the last 40 years have gotten so much more interested in what’s in their food and how it’s grown. I can speak to the fact that this is not just a tiny change, but a massive change in people’s consumer interest. And also, I can speak on policy when it comes to what’s practical. We got very involved in the rulemaking Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and one of the reasons we did was because we are big supporters of course of food safety, and we wanted it to be practically applied. So in a sense, you didn’t have people in an office in Washington saying “this is how often you should test your irrigation water” or “this is the appropriate practice for spreading manure.” These are things we just know because farmers have been doing them for years. I’ve done these things all my life and we continue to have a farm. By having knowledge pertaining to farming, we can argue from the viewpoint of the small to medium-sized farmer.
FPC: How does the agricultural legislative landscape differ from other policy landscapes in terms of partisanship, the power of special interest groups and the likelihood of reform? Partisan politics can divide individuals on all topics. How do you believe individuals of different beliefs can come together and create the best possible solutions regarding food policy? Do you see more potential on agricultural issues for bipartisan cooperation?
CP: Everyone knows reform is a hard thing to accomplish. Change can be very difficult, but one thing that has really helped implement reform, or at least push it forward, at the federal level has been the big interest on the part of consumers. The people have been pushing very strongly for GMO labeling and organic standards, or things they care about because they want to know about the food that they put in their body and everyone eats. These policies are less partisan and more about the region that you come from and what you hear about your constituents and, therefore, it’s not always a democrat or republican issue. You can have individuals from both parties on either side of policy reform.
As I previously said, it’s often regional. It can depend on a variety of factors such as whether you have a lot of cotton in your district or corn. In New England, we have a lot of diversified direct consumer kinds of farms. Opinions regarding food policy tend to be representational either the region of the country that you come from or what you hear from your constituents. One of the challenges with special interests is that there are over a thousand people on Capitol Hill who lobby for the food farming and/or food processing industry. The has a big impact on our ability to make things change so it’s not always easy.
FPC: With the 2018 Farm Bill in the near future, substantial change could ensue among agricultural policy. What do you hope this omnibus piece of legislation will accomplish and in which areas do you hope to see substantial change? Which areas do you hope to see little change? Lastly, what is your biggest fear regarding the upcoming legislation?
CP: Every farm bill is different. A lot of things are very unpredictable about the farm bill; very much like Congress today. There are a lot of unknowns about which legislation Congress will pass. We continue to work for reform so there are more programs and availability to support small to medium-sized farmers. We want to enhance the rural economy. We are trying to submit proposals to increase the amount of money available for organic research because we feel like it’s such a growing field that there should be more USDA funding devoted to it. Also, we are working to attain funding for organic transition to help farmers transition from being conventional farmers to organic farmers because it’s a good market for them as they can get better prices for the products they produce. The demand is so high for organic produce that we are importing a lot from other countries. Therefore, we are very focused on those parts of the bill.
Of course, in terms of the negative side of it, we are always worried that we won’t be able to create change and that things will stay too much the status quo. We even fear that we’ll revert to things we aren’t in favor of like reducing the strengths of the organic label. We think it’s really important to have those standards be high and not to let down on that. We are going to be watching all of this very closely.
FPC: How do you think the increased market power of organic agriculture will influence public policy?
CP: The market has gotten so big. Today, there are over $40 billion dollars of organic food sales in this country. Retailers want more products, while food processing and food companies are pushing for more availability. Also, it means that consumers are letting their members of Congress know that they care about what goes into their food and that they care about nutrition. I think some of my colleagues and others, that never would have paid attention this before, are now more likely to sign on to legislation that we are proposing and treat it like an important market for the farmers they represent. We’ve just seen more cooperation from our colleagues on things related to organics. Of course, some results that we see will just be determined by how this new administration treats it and what the department does. Because they are all relatively new, we don’t exactly know how they will act going forward.
FPC: What specific challenges do mergers like the Monsanto-Bayer merger present?
CP: We are generally opposed to big mergers like that example only because farmers, like everyone else, need more choice in the marketplace. We worry about just having two or three companies in charge of the seeds or the products that farmers buy. Having too much control of the market it’s not good in any industry and it’s certainly not good in farming.
FPC: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that the age of farmers in Maine has stabilized while the acres dedicated to agriculture have increased. Which conditions have led to Maine’s favorable farming environment? How can we get Midwestern states to follow this trend?
CP: Interestingly, Maine was a very agricultural state in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. I think a lot of Maine’s farmers had a hard time competing with some of the markets in the Midwest, and the cheaper cost of transportation, but as people’s interest has grown in buying more food locally and organic farming a lot of young people have come back into Maine or continued working on their family farm because they have seen opportunities for good prices or good markets, and also farmland that was out of use. So while farmers in the Midwest or big agricultural states were starting to be priced out of agriculture, and farms were getting conglomerated and bought up by big investors, it sort of wasn’t true in Maine.
I think the availability of land and the availability of good markets has helped Maine. We are not only a very busy tourist economy but are very close to Boston and New York in terms of shipping our produce or products to nearby areas. We have also had a longstanding support network with the group called MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) which has been here since the 70’s. They have an apprenticeship program so young people who are interested in farming can get a summer job on a farm and learn more. Also, beginning farmers can go to something called the Journey Person’s Program and enhance their skills. I think these of things have been very helpful to people who want to get into farming, but don’t have a lot of basic knowledge or don’t have time or ability to go to a four-year agricultural college. I was originally an apprentice on a farm myself in about 1973, so that’s how I got my start too.
FPC: What are some realistic goals you’d like to see the federal government achieve this next decade in regards to food policy?
CP: I would like to see a lot more money invested in research and also other things pertaining to organic farming, such as both growing techniques and helping farmers making the transition to be organic farmers. I’d like to see groups like the USDA engage much more in connecting what consumers are interested in with what farmers are growing. Basically, I would just like to see agricultural policy catch up with what’s already happening in the marketplace. Like I said, stores like Walmart are selling organic food. Amazon bought Whole Foods. This is due to the fact that big companies see that this is the direction of how consumers are going. They want to know more about their foods; they want accurate labeling; they want tastier fruits and vegetables. They have a lot of people of all income levels who want it to be affordable. I think the government could play a big role in developing public policy that could actually catch us up with what is going on in the marketplace.
FPC: Some might argue that government subsidies for the mass production of crops such as corn and soybeans have kept the farming industry afloat. What is your response to this belief?
CP: I think it’s skewed the farming industry and I think it has interfered with good nutrition. You can see a lot of arguments that subsidizing corn and making it cheap to consumers has lead to things like using way to much corn syrup and processed corn in food products. This can make the food unhealthy. So I think some of the subsidies have skewed the nutritional balance. And I argue that we spread out the subsidies to things like fruits and vegetables and things that we know, a nutritionist knows, is healthy and good for us and often is not available enough to the general public in an affordable way.
FPC: What was your breakfast this morning?
CP: I live in a very small town and one of my daughters owns a restaurant, which sells a lot of the food that we grow on our farm. I came down and had breakfast in her restaurant. It was an egg frittata with eggs and bacon from our farm.
FPC: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?
CP: It’s a very abundant time on our farm so my refrigerator is jam-packed with everything from corn to lettuce to carrots and turnips. It’s jam-packed with so many good things to eat that I should be home cooking right now. I try to keep my pantry full of whole grains and as many healthy organic, natural things as I can. Because I don’t get to shop very often, I stock up on a lot of stuff that we might need for the next month.
FPC: Your favorite “junk food”?
CP: I think it’s hard to beat potato chips. Luckily, we grow a lot of potatoes and make a lot of potato chips in Maine. That way, at least you can feel like you’re eating them from your own state!
FPC: Your worst summer job?
CP: I’ve done a lot of summer jobs–waitressing, bartending, working on farms–and i’ve never really hated anything I’ve had to do. I feel like I’ve always learned from what I’ve done.
FPC: As a child, you wanted to be?
CP: You know, it’s funny, when I was in junior high I thought I would become a psychiatrist. I have always liked psychology.
Grew up in: Minnesota
Where you live: North Haven, Maine (It is twelve miles off the coast of Maine)
Background and Education: I went to high school in Minnesota and graduated from College of the Atlantic in Maine.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Messed-up
Food policy hero: Elliott Coleman; he was my teacher in college. He is still a great organic farmer and an advocate for healthy, tasty food.
Favorite food: It’s probably colored by the time of year, but it’s hard to beat a summer tomato.
Social media and food policy website(s) you must follow/read: Fern, they seem to have a lot of interesting stuff.
Favorite food policy book: There are so many! I would say… In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan because it has been so widely read and has helped so many people get a factual basis for their opinions.