5 Ways Congress Can Support Farmers to Mitigate Climate Change

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree shares her five-point plan, which includes a focus on soil health, farmland conservation, and more.



In the summer of 1971, armed with a copy of Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, I stepped off a ferry and onto North Haven Island in Maine. I was a back-to-the-lander, determined to live a more sustainable life. Years later, after graduating from one of the College of the Atlantic’s first classes, I established an organic farm complete with cows, chickens, sheep, and vegetables. Many years later—while raising a family and farming on and off—I stumbled into politics and was elected to the state legislature and eventually to Congress.

Chellie Pingree as a young farmer.

Chellie Pingree as a young farmer.

I still run an organic farm, and when I return home from Washington on the weekends, I come back to the island where I’ve lived for more than 40 years. In that time, I’ve watched our land in Maine become more vulnerable to rising tides, to late spring frosts, and other harsh effects of climate change.

These are tough times for farmers. They’re operating on thin margins to begin with. Trade wars are jeopardizing export markets. There is a serious mental health and substance abuse crisis ravaging our rural communities. And extreme weather events are becoming more unpredictable and catastrophic.

Farmers see the effects of climate change every day. Our growing seasons have changed. We’re experiencing more frequent and serious rain and flooding, yet also more prolonged droughts. It is become increasingly difficult to stay on farmland and actually turn a profit.

Despite this worsening problem, Congress neglected to take action on climate change for eight years. Republicans did not hold a single a hearing about the issue during their entire time in the majority, let alone pass a bill to push for mitigation and solutions. The 116th Congress is different. We’ve already held more than 30 hearings on climate change, and recently voted on legislation reenter the United States in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. But we are long past the time to start taking dramatic action, as shown by this week’s alarming mass-extinction report from the United Nations, as well as last year’s U.N. climate emergency report.

However, in our new push for climate solutions—from the ambitious Green New Deal to our recommitment to the Paris Agreement—farmers and ranchers need to have a seat at the table. We can’t let the conversation about agriculture and climate change turn into an oversimplified debate about whether we all have to stop eating meat or not.

It’s true that our food system contributes about a quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases each year, but those who produce our food also hold the potential to reverse that statistic. But farmers need incentives and tools from policymakers to do that. In order to move this conversation along, I’m shining a spotlight on five ways we can support farmers who are on the ground fighting climate change every day.

First, we must make soil health a top priority. Soils store more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined. If we have healthy soils, we can also improve climate resiliency by improving water quality and increasing farm productivity. We need to explore ways to further incentivize farmers to sequester carbon in the soil, such as carbon markets for agriculture, and ways to strengthen conservation practices and verify their outcomes.

Second, we must protect existing farmland. The U.S. is losing 1.5 million acres of farm and ranchland per year. We have to keep farmers on the land: for food production capacity and to capture more carbon in the soil. When farmland is developed into parking lots, roads, and other uses it increases the quantity of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Third, we must support pasture-based livestock systems. Livestock can play an integral role in carbon sequestration, especially under management-intensive rotational grazing systems. But they also release methane. Agriculture research into livestock diets can also help us find innovative ways to reduce emissions from these animals while maintaining the positive contributions of livestock to pasture-based systems.

Fourth, we must boost investments in on-farm energy initiatives. There was a 132 percent increase in farms with renewable energy systems—wind, solar, and other technologies—from 2012 to 2017. Renewable energy systems can provide new revenue streams for farmers, but they need incentives to help to reduce up-front costs.

Fifth, we must reduce food waste. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas-emitting nation in the world. We have to support food waste reduction throughout the entire supply chain—from encouraging consumption of imperfect produce to standardizing food date labeling.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Farmers are already participating in voluntary conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some states are incentivizing carbon sequestration through healthy soils programs. The private sector is also engaging in climate efforts, from creating new food products using cover crops to exploring how technology can help farmers measure greenhouse gas emissions.

But I believe policymakers need to do even more to incentivize farmers and offer solutions that work for them. As an organic farmer in the U.S. House of Representatives, I will work to ensure our farmers are seen as part of the climate solution and given the support to fight this crisis.

Top photo: Chellie Pingree unveiled her five ag principles at Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, Maine, in April. (Photo by Matthew Whalen Photography)

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View Comments (14)

  1. Bonnie
    Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
    Yes, yes, and yes.
  2. Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
    I love this article and am so excited to have Chellie Pingree as my Congresswoman. Soil is a bipartisan issue. Every farmer wants organic matter in the soil. Our current ag system encourages degrading the soil, rather than regenerating it. Get your representatives on board!
  3. Charlie Nelson
    Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
    Thank you, you're spot on. Now how do you spread the word where you work?
  4. Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
    Thank you for your five principles! I especially appreciate your emphasis on pastoralism. We do quick rotation with dairy goats, and plant a hundred trees a year, and are a net carbon sink!
  5. Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
    Nice job Chellie!
  6. Jan Tusick
    Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
    Thank you for your timely article. We need to "green" our farmlands and make agriculture the leader in addressing climate change.

    Jan Tusick
    Montana Farmers Union Board Member
  7. Sally Barrows
    Tuesday, May 14th, 2019
    Dear Chellie,
    I am so glad to see how involved you are with carbon sequestration. This is what I have decided to focus on as well.
    I have 2 questions:
    1) Is there a simple way to get across the fact that we have a breathable atmosphere because of millions of years of plants and soil drawing down CO2? It seems that if people understood that they could grasp the fact that regenerative farming is an actual solution.
    2) Do you understand why 350.org and 350 Maine both fail to even mention agriculture on their websites??????
  8. Claire Mcdougald
    Tuesday, May 14th, 2019
    I THANK YOU FOR MAKING THIS A PRIORITY BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.
  9. Wednesday, May 15th, 2019
    Chellie - I am so excited that you are taking the soil sponge conversation to the federal level! I've recently taken a course on regenerating the soil sponge and am dedicating the majority of my time to teaching the soil health principles that can help with climate resiliency and eventually lead to reduction in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I have been a climate warrior since the 1970s, but I have never been as excited as I am now that we can restore the balance to the water and carbon cycles. The systems are ecologically complex, yet beautifully simple as a solution. I'm speaking to a group of women in agriculture tonight about the role mycorrhizal fungi play in sequestering carbon in the microbial diverse and rich soil communities. The results are so promising on all accounts. The soil sponge mitigates the effects of droughts, fires, floods and hurricanes. Thank you for bringing soil health and holistic farming practices to the nation's attention.
    • Timmy
      Thursday, May 16th, 2019
      @Sue Van Hook, Are you really Didi Pershouse using a pseudonym? :)

      If not, I trust you know her or will look her up!
  10. Michael Bender
    Thursday, May 16th, 2019
    Hallelujah and amen!

    Thank you Congresswoman-farmer Pingree.
  11. Friday, May 17th, 2019
    I FARM ON THE SOUTH END OF THE EASTERN SEABOARD, AND I AGREE WITH EVERY WORD. FURTHER, THESE INITIATIVES WILL HELP TO BRING PROSPERITY BACK TO RURAL AMERICA.

    ROCK ON-

    WILL HARRIS
    WHITE OAK PASTURES
    BLUFFTON, GEORGIA
  12. Sunday, May 19th, 2019
    I couldn't agree more. All five points are totally relevant and correct. A sixth point is to SUPPORT LOCAL FARM INITIATIVES which are doing all of the above-regenerating the soil to make it healthy, free from chemicals and pesticides, using compost so that food waste is not wasted, making the best use of the land and watering systems which produce more on less land like the Market Gardener in Quebec. I'm supporting such a project in New Lebanon, NY www.integrativepermaculture.com at www.shakermillfalls.com so that there is both an Inn and a farm in process and a non-profit CREED, Center for Regenerative Education and Enterprise Development, aiming to draw interns and students of all ages.