A Modern Farmer in Congress
By the time Chellie Pingree was elected to represent Maine’s 1st district in the United States House of Representatives in 2008, she had already amassed more than thirty years of farming experience in the state. Her agrarian CV includes: starting an organic farm on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine; running a successful yarn company that used wool from the sheep on her farm; serving on the Agriculture Committee in the Maine State Senate; and renewing her penchant for organic farming with the acquisition and renovation of Turner Farm in 2008. Now, Pingree is in her third congressional term, and in her 5-year tenure, she has served both on the Agriculture Committee and the Agriculture Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
On Wednesday, Congresswoman Pingree took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her farming background, Maine’s local food movement, and the 2013 farm bill.
Modern Farmer: How did you first become interested in farming?
Chellie Pingree: My grandparents were Scandinavian immigrants who came to Minnesota to be farmers. My mom grew up on the farm, and although I wasn’t raised on the farm, we used to go down there on weekends and during the summer. I always had farming in my background, but as a kid, I thought the last thing I would do is be a farmer.
I went to this alternative high school in Massachusetts and I met a boy there who was Maine-bound. He had just read — and everybody was reading — this book called Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. So, I read the book — it was 1971 — and there was this migration of people coming to Maine. There were all kinds of names for this: people living off the land, back-to-the-landers … people who wanted to try sustainable agriculture by following the model of the Nearings. In 1971, I ended up in Maine and we started with a little cabin, cut our wood for firewood, and tried to run this little farm. Really, that’s where I got my start.
I ended up deciding to go back to school and I went to the College of the Atlantic. When I went there, I actually thought I was going to study to be a science teacher, but I started taking classes in horticulture and soil science. I got a work-study job in the college greenhouse and then I started running the composting operation at the school. And one of my teachers was Eliot Coleman, who lived on a plot of land that he had gotten from the Nearings, and so I completely got interested in learning to become an organic farmer.
After college, I moved back to the island of North Haven, in midcoast Maine. By then, I had gotten married to the boy I met in high school and we started a little farm. I worked as a farm apprentice one summer, and then we got a couple of dairy cows, a hundred chickens and about 2 acres of vegetables. That was in 1976.
MF: And you have an organic farm on North Haven now, right?
CP: I do. Fast forward, I started a little business based on selling wool products from the sheep we had begun to raise. Then I became a state legislator. Now, I’m in Congress and my current husband and I decided to buy a farm that’s about 200 years old, but that had been basically abandoned. For the last five years, we’ve been turning it back into a serious farm again.
The first person I called was Eliot Coleman to get some advice. Now we employ hoop houses, the same system he uses. We have a goat dairy, and built our own chicken processing facility. And I have a really great market because we own an inn and a restaurant, so we grow much of the food for the people who come to our restaurant.
MF: To what extent has that experience influenced how you approach public policy?
CP: It’s had an enormous effect on me. First, going back to the days when I was a state legislator, I served on the agriculture committee in the early 1990s when things like genetically engineered products, irradiated food and bovine growth hormones were new topics to most policymakers. In those days, I was willing to get up and talk about them because I was already interested in organic farming and had already been trained in that way.
Now today, I’ve had the chance to serve on the Agriculture committee and now I’m on the Agriculture Appropriations committee, so even though some people find these topics volatile, I can say first hand what the market looks like, what consumers are looking for … I know what it is to milk a cow or weed a field or balance the budget of a farm. I can speak about the experiences I’ve had or the farmers I’ve known over the years. It’s been a great help to me and I also think generally when you love the topic of farming or when you’ve been engaged with the policy of farming, you meet an enormously diverse group of people and you can relate to them either about the food we eat, or for farmers, the job that they do, which is very hard and difficult to make a go of it. That’s just really helpful when you’re considering public policy issues.
They want good tasting food and they want to keep farmers and farms in their area. I don’t think that’s something that’s specific to rich people. I think that’s relevant for people who love their community.
MF: There is a tendency to view the local food movement as elitist. Yet, Maine is 38th in GDP per capita in the United States and is nevertheless among a few other states that are leading the way for the local food movement. What does that say about the alleged elitism of farmers markets, CSAs and other community-driven agriculture?
CP: Frankly, that’s one of my favorite statistics. In a state like ours that isn’t, when compared with other states, wealthy but where people really want to eat well and cook healthy foods … if people in our state are flocking to farmers markets or the local foods section of their grocery store or seek out the farmer who grows organic food, it shows that even on limited dollars, people want to have good, healthy food. People have been really interested in the programs that make it possible to take your SNAP cards to the farmers markets or to join a CSA with your SNAP benefits.
And I find that anecdotally. If I’m talking to a group of Mainers at a town meeting or a high school graduation, and I start talking about local, healthy foods, about getting more locally grown foods in the school lunch program, making it easier for people at all income levels to buy locally grown foods, people perk right up. They want good tasting food and they want to keep farmers and farms in their area. I don’t think that’s something that’s specific to rich people. I think that’s relevant for people who love their community. Maine is very rural, very small-town-oriented, and nothing makes people happier than to see a farm move into the community or come back to life again, and being able to take their kids and grandkids there to visit.
MF: Turning to the national scene, now that a farm bill has passed in the Senate, what are the most important hurdles the bill faces before it becomes law?
CP: I think it will come to the floor of the House, probably next week. There will be a tremendous number of amendments and a little bit of a struggle to move it through the House because the farm bill represents such a diverse range of issues in the sense that it contains all the food programs, and there are big differences of opinion on getting it through the House. But it moved through the Senate, so I believe there’s a good chance it will come out of the House in the next week or two and then most likely go to conference and spend some time with people working out the differences. But I think unlike last year, where we couldn’t even get it to come to the House floor, there’s a much better chance it will move forward this year. And it won’t be perfect, but we have certainly worked to put a lot more language in there around local and sustainable farming.
MF: What do you think is different about this year in terms of the debate coming to the House floor?
CP: The Republican majority has held it up from coming to the floor, and while there are still some issues there, there is a pressure from many members of that caucus to get the farm bill implemented because there are so many issues that can’t get resolved until the bill actually comes to the floor.
MF: You reintroduced the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act in April. Where does that bill factor into the current debate?
CP: Basically because the farm bill is this huge piece of legislation with multiple titles, we took as much as we could from our bill — and Sherrod Brown had a companion bill in the Senate — and we’ve tried to work as many pieces as we possibly could into both the Senate version of the farm bill and the House version of the farm bill. Some of the things we haven’t gotten included, we will introduce as amendments next week when it comes to the floor. We’ve gotten a lot of the things that we care about into the bill: mostly things that affect school lunch programs, local food and farming, value-added producer grants, and crop insurance that deals with diverse and organic crops … things that are important to farmers that we’ve learned a lot about in Maine.
MF: Mark Bittman characterized the substitution of federal crop insurance for direct payment subsidies as a “bait and switch.” Do you think that is a fair assessment?
CP: Yeah, pretty much so. That’s one of the big parts of the bill which we’ve really had no negotiating power over. On the one hand, it took direct payments, which liberals and conservatives both agree were often going to the wrong people, and were doing nothing to really support farmers, and certainly not family farms, and turned it into a crop insurance program. Now, crop insurance has its value and we’re even pushing some level of crop insurance for organic farmers, for diversified farms, but they’ve developed a sort of inflated insurance program that gives a lot of money back just to specific commodities. It’s highly subsidized by the taxpayer and it’s highly subsidized at the insurer’s level, so many insurance companies are subsidized to sell it, and many of them are offshore insurance companies. It’s just got a lot of flaws, it costs a lot of money and people are really angry about it.
The farm bill is just a huge range of titles. There are some parts that we really like; there are some parts that we’re just as angry as everybody else about. We’re just trying to fix those things that we can actually get fixed and this has been one that has been an incredible uphill battle to make any changes to it.
MF: As someone who has seen several sides of the farming industry, what would be your most important piece of advice for the conscientious consumer?
CP: It’s really great to support farmers whenever and in any way that you can. When a consumer can make a decision to buy food from a local farmer, a family farm, a small farm that’s based in their region, it does an enormous amount to help farming as an industry and to help those communities that are economically impacted. It helps our environment. You’re more likely to know what’s in your food and you can look the farmer in the eye and say, “So, tell me how you grew this” and “What am I about to eat?” The more everybody does it as an individual consumer, the more our world will go back in that direction.
MF: And the conscientious voter?
CP: The conscientious voter should really push their member of Congress and their state legislature on these issues. Tell them how important it is to have food that is sustainably grown, that has a limited amount of chemicals and unhealthy substances. Let the people who serve you in public office know how important the quality of the food you eat is and that you want more people able to farm on the land that surrounds all of our communities.