This article originally ran in the fall 2017 issue of New Farm Magazine, the magazine of Organic Farmers Association. All OFA members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm twice per year. Click here to sign up!
Ground Breakers: Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), an organic farmer, advocates for healthier food and agriculture.
by Michaela Cavallaro
The views of Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s First Congressional District in Washington, DC, are grounded in the soil at her own certified-organic farm on the island of North Haven. “Since the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, I’ve spent the last several years making sure the FDA doesn’t make regulations that will hinder small farmers like myself,” Pingree says, pointing to once-proposed water-testing rules that would have been nearly insur- mountable for the crew on her farm.
“It’s really important to go back to our farmers and ask, ‘What would happen if we had to irrigate three different ways?’ They just laugh; there isn’t enough time in the day. So I can go to Washing- ton and say, ‘That’s just not going to work.’ ”
Pingree came to Congress in 2008, after years of involvement in politics, entrepre- neurship, and agriculture. She’d grown up in Minneapolis and graduated from College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she had the good fortune to be taught by organic- gardening pioneer Eliot Coleman. At the farm stand Pingree ran in the mid-1970s, most of the produce was grown organically, but that designation wasn’t what drew customers in.
“They came because it was fresh, good-tasting food that was grown in their neighborhood,” she says. “Today, we grow certified-organic vegetables, and people ask me in great detail about our practices. The level of awareness is higher, as is people’s willingness to pay more, which makes it easier to use organic techniques.”
CAMPAIGN FOR CHANGE
Pingree first ran for national office in 2002, mounting an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). After several years as the president of Common Cause, a national, nonpartisan citizen activist group, Pingree was elected to Congress from Maine’s First Congressional District. This sprawling territory includes small-island communities, like her hometown of North Haven; rural towns dotted with farms; and wealthy coastal areas. Pingree expected to focus on health care, the issue on which she’d made her name in Maine, but her attention has mostly been drawn to an issue close to her heart: agriculture—and food in particular.
A member of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee that deals with agriculture, Pingree works to improve the food system, but it’s “very hard to change public policy in the world of agriculture,” she says. “There’s a lot of resistance at the federal and state levels.” She remains hopeful that the tide is turning, however. “The public is so much better informed about what’s in their food and about the health effects of chemicals and antibiotics,” she says. “That’s overtaking the fact that public policy lags behind.”
Pincer is pushing policy forward by advocating for federal funds to support research on organic techniques. The USDA allocates less than 1 percent of its research budget to organics, even though certified-organic items make up about 14 percent of the produce market, she says. With cosponsors Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Representative Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Pingree has introduced a bill that would expand annual funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative from $20 million to $50 million. “The USDA puts research money into geneti- cally engineered seeds but not into drought resistant or heirloom varieties. We could focus [resources] on food that’s tasty versus food that ships well,” Pingree says. “There are a lot of things we could be doing better.” (Click to see page 6 for details on this initiative.)
Improving access to capital and infrastructure is another challenge for organic farmers that Pingree wants to address. Banks are not as familiar with the business of farming as they once were, she says, so a loan officer, for instance, might not see the promise in a certified-organic farmer’s loan application. “It’s sometimes harder for a young person to buy or expand a farm operation than it would be to buy a McDonald’s franchise,” Pingree says.
At the same time, slaughterhouses, canning factories, and distribution centers have consolidated, limiting resources and market access for organic farmers. In Maine, for example, the booming craft beer industry has created demand for local malt and hops. While both markets are growing, hops producers are stymied by the lack of an in-state processing facility—which requires a multimillion-dollar investment. “It’s a chicken-and egg problem: When does a region have enough hops produc- ers to merit a processing facility?” Pingree asks.
Despite the many obstacles farmers must overcome, Pingree sees promise—for Maine and for America—in the organic-farming business. “I’m really excited to be in a state where the number of organic farms under cultivation is going up, the age of farmers is going down, and more women are farming than ever.”