United States Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has been an organic farmer in Maine since the 1970s, so it’s no surprise she’s also been pushing for food system change since she was elected to office in 2009. Last week, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) recognized her work with a Leadership Award for “her support of national policies that promote healthy food, local and regional food systems, and organic agriculture.”
Rep. Pingree addressed the organization’s Food Summit that day, expressing frustration with policies that favor industrial agriculture over small, sustainable producers.
“Federal food policies have not caught up with what consumers want today,” she told the crowd of food industry insiders. “We’ve incentivized many of the wrong things, things like corn syrup. We don’t put enough into specialty crops, which is frankly fruits and vegetables, and we focus too much on commodities. Welcome to the world of agriculture policy and the farm bill.”
Pingree also spoke optimistically about the fact that consumer demand is already causing the food industry to shift. “I’ve really seen the changes over 45 years as a farmer, activist, and policymaker,” she said. “The fact is…regardless of your age, your economic status, your party, you are interested in getting fresh, healthy food on your table.”
With the 2018 Farm Bill fast approaching, Civil Eats caught up with Rep. Pingree to talk about her policy priorities and what to pay attention to now.
What are your biggest farm bill priorities right now?
We’re working on a number of different bills [to be included in the final farm bill package]. We have a comprehensive one that is similar to what we did last time … called the Food, Farms, and Jobs Act. That covers everything from how do you assist farmers in the kind of programs that would help them expand, give small farmers opportunities to work with value-added products, more local food, things like that.
We’ve got a piece on organic research to try to increase the volume of organic food [produced] in this country, some nutrition programs on SNAP, and also we have a piece on “food as medicine,” sort of a prescription program that’s kind of modeled after what they do at Wholesome Wave.
Then, we have a comprehensive food waste bill, and that is everything from consumer education to liability laws to incentives for communities to do composting or anaerobic digestion.
So, we’ve got a lot of little pieces, and the way it is with the farm bill is you write a big bill and try to get a few co-sponsors. But then eventually you’re just trying to figure out where to get your piece in where you can. And because I’m on the Appropriations Committee, which comes up every year, on some of the same things we’re just working on getting the language [around the above issues] in appropriations bills. So, we’re working on it all.
You mentioned the last farm bill. How are things different this time around?
There’s some good and bad. On the one hand, Secretary Vilsack, I think, was trying to take a more forward-looking approach as the secretary of agriculture. So we had that department to work with. They had a real emphasis on local food, Know Your Farmer, Know your Food. They kind of had a sense of the trends that were changing in American eating habits and farming.
We’re not sure about Sonny Purdue. Some of the things we’re concerned about are regulation changes the [current administration has already made]. We don’t know how receptive they’ll be. On the other hand, I’ve had an easier time getting Republican co-sponsors [this time]. I have more Republican colleagues who have weighed in on organic research, food waste, programs for farmers.
I think that’s a combination of two things. One, they’re hearing from their constituents, too. When you look at the data, that’s the trend we see. People are really changing their food habits and they want policy to reflect that. So it doesn’t matter if you live in Iowa, you’re still hearing that from your constituents.
Is the current administration making it harder to reach environmental goals, such as the advancement of sustainable agriculture practices that can help mitigate climate change, for instance?
It’s a little bit different in agriculture because you don’t have to go at it from the stance of just regulating the environment. For instance, we have this bill to increase organic research—to more than double what it was. Basically, organic research in and of itself is of great assistance to farmers. A lot of them want to transition [to certified organic] but they’d like more information about techniques, they’d like more support in the transition. The markets are really good right now, so they would like to do more of it. They’re not necessarily saying, “I want to do it because it’s better for the environment.” A lot of them are saying, “Is there better money in organic milk than in non-organic milk?” So, it’s not like we have to have that debate over it.
On the other hand, the role of organic matter in the soil, which is kind of critical to organic farming overall, is huge in sequestering carbon. So a lot of conservation practices just become sort of natural to organic farmers—like cover crops and crop rotation. All of those things just are so good for the environment. So I kind of feel like we get to work on it without having to say, “This is a climate change bill.” But certainly [working with] the [current administration] has been difficult. They want to get rid of anything on climate change research, climate change data.
The farm bill historically has favored the interests of Big Ag. Are you working on helping small farmers access more resources?
We have put a lot of emphasis on that both in the last farm bill and this one, too. We see many more opportunities for growth for small and medium-sized farms … especially in places like New England, where we have more farms than we used to and more young people are getting into farming.
So a lot of the programs we work on are specifically to support value-added producer grants, which are small grants for farmers to do things like put hoop houses on their farms to extend the season or put in a dairy if they have a handful of cows or goats and you want to make cheese.
I think it’s hard to change the farm bill at the scale we’d like to because so much of the money is directed to the big commodities. But our goal has been to constantly keep shifting it into those areas where you can see growth. We put money into things like farmers market promotion programs and a lot of infrastructure grants, and thinking about how to get more meat processing, food hubs, community kitchens. That’s also something we work on in the Appropriations Committee, because sometimes those programs are authorized but no one has ever put any money into them.
We’ve also been doing a lot of work on how to make the Food Safety Modernization Act workable for small and medium-sized farmers. Some of those regulations were being written for, you know, a thousand acres of land, not a diverse, three-acre farm.
The farm bill is notoriously unwieldy and confusing. What can people who care about food and farming do to stay engaged?
It is hard. It’s so many amorphous titles in one, so you can’t really just say, “I want a better farm bill.” In some ways, we want a whole different way of looking at the food and farming system.
That said, there are some good organizations out there like Food Policy Action. They break it down and make it easier to understand. There’s a huge amount of interest on the part of consumers and a huge desire to be engaged, and it is really hard to get people activated at the right moment.
But everybody has a member of Congress. Frankly, just getting a meeting with your representative really does make a difference. I hear that from my colleagues—I mean, they’ll say to me, “I met with this farmer, and he’s growing tomatoes in a green house for the restaurant industry. I didn’t know that was going on in my district.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.