Pushing for local food in the farm bill: An interview with Chellie Pingree
Does local and organic food matter more to people in Maine than it does to other Americans? It’s possible, but Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) insists that’s not why she introduced the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, a small but encouraging set of legislative reforms meant to accompany this year’s farm bill.
And while the “marker bill” has yet to be embraced entirely, some parts of it have clearly influenced the Senate’s draft of the larger farm bill, which is said to be about to hit the Senate floor this week. Most sustainable food advocates have seen it as a welcome push for small-scale agriculture, after decades of federal support for industrial farming.
We spoke with Pingree recently about bill, the work behind it, and her motivation to get a farm bill passed before the last one runs out in September.
Q. You’re on the Armed Services Committee. Do you have any thoughts or ideas on how food security and national security are tied together?
A. One of the challenges of conventional agriculture — whether it’s the use of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, or how food is grown and distributed — is that it’s energy-intensive. There’s a general agreement, at least among people like me, that national security is better served if we’re not so dependent on foreign oil and other sources of energy. The more you can localize your food system the better off you are.
Q. So what can Maine gain from the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act?
A. There’s a huge growth in interest on the part of people in buying more food locally, whether it’s going to farmers markets, shopping directly at a farm, or joining a CSA [community-supported agriculture program]. The average age of our farmers [in Maine] is going down because more young people are engaging in farming or staying on the farm. And the number of farms under cultivation is actually increasing. We see this trend in Maine as a huge opportunity. It’s allowing a lot of farmers to come back. The market for organic milk, for example, has completely changed over the last 20 years.
Tourism is our largest industry. People come to Maine to eat our lobsters, but they also want to eat our spinach, sweet corn, and tomatoes.
Q. What does that have to do with shortening the supply chain?
A. Basically by creating more opportunities for accessing your food locally. One such program is the Farmers Market Promotion Program, to promote greater awareness of local food production. So you can meet local farmers, look them in the eye, ask questions, and eat samples. We have other programs to improve distribution and aggregation — making it easier for small-scale farmers to sell their produce.
Q. You mean like food hubs?
A. Yes. And there’s a lot of conversation about that. We have some examples of food hubs in Maine and we’re anxious to see that model replicated elsewhere.
Q. We’re in the middle of an election cycle. Does Congress really have an incentive to pass a farm bill this year given the level of divisiveness between both parties?
A. I have no crystal ball. That said, the Senate has moved the bill through the ag committee and the [House] chair has a commitment to bring that bill to the floor of the House. The Senate will likely take up the bill this month and we’ll know whether they can get enough votes to pass it. If not, we’ll start over next year.
Q. So which have the most impact, states with the most resident farmers or the states with the most farm lobbyists?
A. There are farm lobbyists working on every possible issue down to the most minuscule detail, and that includes lobbyists working on behalf of sustainable and organic farming and young farmers. There are good advocacy groups on all sides here. Admittedly some of the big interests have more muscle behind their lobby. But the truth is the farm bill affects all regions of the country in different ways. Over 80 percent of the dollars in the farm bill are for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] and hunger benefits programs. So the greatest impact will most likely be on low-income citizens who are scattered throughout the country.
Q. Are we getting to the point where food production and food assistance should be uncoupled from one another? They’re interrelated, but aren’t they separate sets of problems?
A. Linking food subsidies like SNAP benefits and farm procedures and processes has a lot of history in Congress. Changing that is one of the many reforms I’d be happy to see. But I don’t expect in this particular era we’re going to be able to. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we eke a farm bill out the door or even manage to extend provisions of the farm bill beyond Sept. 30 without radical change.
Q. Is there anything in the proposed farm bill that members of the food movement could get excited about?
A. One them is organic certification cost share, so if you’re a farmer that wants to convert from being a conventional farmer but you think, for instance, there’s a better market for organic milk, there’s a federal fund to help you make that transition. That fund is now at $80 million, a big increase over what it was before.
Q. You’ve served in the state House and now Congress. How much of an effort is it to pass legislation as big and unwieldy as the farm bill?
A. It’s an enormous effort. My staffer Claire Benjamin has done an incredible amount of work over the last two years basically to both write the title that we’re currently talking about and then to organize advocacy groups and to work with committee members. As much as anything, because I just joined the agricultural committee during this session, it’s been a big effort of getting to know my colleagues, and then finding like-minded members of the House both on and off the committee, and then working with 200 or so advocacy groups around the country that have endorsed our bill. So each one of those groups required a variety of conversations.
Q. Are you up for reelection this November and if so what role does the farm bill play in electoral politics?
A. Yes. Everybody in the House has to run every two years. So this is the election year for all of us. I may or may not be back. I will say it’s a popular issue with my constituents, but that’s not why I did it. I did it because it’s a great opportunity. I’m passionate about the topic and I’m an organic farmer myself.
Before I came to Congress I owned an inn and restaurant and we’ve added an organic farm to our operation. And I’m lucky enough to have help doing it. So when I do talk to people about actual issues of certifying a creamery or getting organic certification or any of the things farmers need to go through, I know what they’re talking about and I understand the process.
More stories in this series:
The upcoming farm bill won’t be the watershed moment we’ve been waiting for. But it still provides an opportunity for food reformers to become sophisticated policy players.
Brace yourselves, food advocates: The congressional supercommittee charged with reducing the national debt considers making cuts to the nation’s most important food and farming legislation.
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Photo: Matthew BurpeeThe most exciting aspect of the new USDA report on the local food and farm economy [PDF] isn’t the sizable $4.8 billion in annual sales of local food it says occurred in 2008. It’s the fact that, as …
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