Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
Images Courtesy Maine 1st District Representative’s Office
A Maine Farmer Goes to Washington
When Chellie Pingree arrived in Washington, D.C. to take her seat as Maine’s 1st District Congressional Representative in 2008, it was at the end of a road which, she might tell you, began years earlier when she first came to the state for college in 1971. Along the way there was a marriage and motherhood and a rich life as an organic farmer and business person before several terms in the Maine Legislature. Today, Pingree’s Maine roots still run deep—that farm has added a destination inn and restaurant, Nebo Lodge, even as she has made a name for herself on the House Agriculture Committee helping craft policy. Specifically, you can see her fingerprints on the current, multi-billion dollar Farm Bill that covers everything from school lunches to SNAP benefits (food stamps), from ethanol subsidies to hoop houses.
With piercing blue eyes and an energetic, forthright manner, she is at once thoughtful, pragmatic, and clearly someone who cares deeply about making her state and her country a healthier, happier place working through her chosen area of expertise, our local and regional food systems. With co-sponsors from commodity producer states like Nebraska and Iowa signing on to bills she has helped initiate, Pingree is a firm believer in bipartisanship and quick to give credit to others. While her office on top of the Marine Trade Center in Portland boasts million-dollar views of the harbor and city, when Congress is out of session, you’ll find her on the island of North Haven, occasionally sticking her head in to greet diners eating a farm-to-table meal in the barn at Turner Farm.
Can you give us an overview of how you got identified as a point person on food issues not just in New England but nationally?
It’s my favorite topic, the thing I like working on the most. I was one of those people who arrived in Maine with a copy of the Nearings’ Living the Good Life about living sustainably and growing your own food, the early stages of organic when it was sort of a marginalized issue. I was lucky enough to study organic farming at College of the Atlantic and to study with Eliot Coleman there. Then, I hit the jackpot. I was the Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener’s first farm apprentice, then I started my own organic farm. So I’ve had this great life experience of being a farmer, learning about it in the early days, then working in public policy when I got to Washington.
Has that small farmer experience, which I imagine is pretty unique, helped you in Washington?
I think there are two or three organic farmers in Congress—but I’d have to check on that third one! So, we got more emails and calls into our office about GMO labeling, a huge amount of calls disproportionate to all the things you think people care about. That was true for a lot of my colleagues. They’d come up to me and say, "I don’t get this GMO labelling thing. What does that mean? What’s a GMO?" In many ways it’s not just because people are that wound up about GMOs but reflects that they want to say something about the food system and what’s in the food they eat.
I know that food security is one of your issues. What have you been able to do for Mainers in this regard?
During the last Farm Bill, I introduced the Local Food, Farms. and Jobs Act, which had a lot of pieces in it that were meant to enhance, or support or develop things that we knew specifically would have an impact on Maine. One of them was this “double bucks” program, if you take your SNAP benefit card to a farmers’ market and it has $10 on it, you get $20 in fresh fruits and vegetables, double what you would get just buying off the shelf. Eating healthy food shouldn’t be about what’s in your bank account. And there’s just universal agreement that people who are struggling to put food on the table should be able to put healthy food on the table.
And for Maine farmers, particularly the kind of small, organic farms we have so many of here?
We’ve worked really hard on value-added producer grants for equipment—Maine has a high proportion of farmers who apply for these grants. Some of them give you the money to put up a hoop house or two in your field to extend your season. Also farmers’ market promotion programs. Programs to get more veterans involved in farming. Things that help community kitchens, and aggregating food so it’s easier for smaller farmers to become part of a bigger market, it’s a long list.
What’s the hardest thing to explain about Maine to people in Washington? How do people perceive this state in your eyes?
In a way, it’s actually better to come from Maine than from California because people actually still have a sense of it being a hardworking fishing, mill state. The thing that is sometimes hard to convince people is that we’re an agricultural state because part of what has evolved in the last hundred years is that agriculture is the Midwest, the South, and California. I often pull out my stories about the Union Army and how, during the Civil War, we were the breadbasket of New England and transporting our product everywhere. We grew everything. We were the poultry capital in the 1980s when I lived near Belfast. It wasn’t that long ago—so for us to come back, in some ways it’s very natural. But what’s interesting is that in agriculture coming back, we’re coming back in a way that’s more responsive to the local market, to where farmers can get the best price.
What have you found controversial as you work on food issues in Congress?
There’s increasing knowledge about the importance of healthy food and getting more institutions involved, so tackling school lunches, that’s one thing that is controversial. And that has to do with the food lobby. The previous administration set some standards, and we’ve been fighting about them ever since. Like the sodium content of food in school lunches. There were things like serving all whole grains, serving half a cup of fruits and vegetables at every meal—seriously! At my desk I have a half cup measure. How do you feel about your kids eating a half a cup of fruits and vegetables every day? There are about 1200 lobbyists on the hill that work with food, food processing, agriculture, basically our food system. There are more of them and they spend more money than the defense industry in lobbying.
Is there anything you take away from your years in farming that you use in Washington as a politician to communicate with people about these kinds of food issues?
Absolutely! Especially on the policy level. In two ways, I do talk a lot about my first experience farming in the 1970s. People liked buying from my farm stand but almost nobody said, to me, what kind of chemicals did you put on this food or how did you grow it? Fast forward, I have a farm stand 40 years later and customers are so well informed. I am organically certified, and that certification is very strict. Customers are better informed, and there’s a lot of diversity in people who come to the stand and who want to eat healthy food. We do a farm-to-table dinner in our barn on North Haven once a week all summer long and it almost sells out in May whereas I don’t think forty years ago I could have put together a dinner in my barn and charged people over $100 where they have to ride for an hour in a boat just to eat there. And they ask really interesting questions of the farmer on the tour and want to see everything about it and are excited to eat all different kinds of cuts of meat and vegetables they’ve never heard of!
So I’m in this business and I can say, here’s how this business has changed and I get into this big thing about how it’s a dereliction of duty in the USDA if they’re not helping more farmers to capture the market where they can get a better price, handle less chemicals, and be responsive to what the consumers want. Why aren’t more of our Farm Bill dollars and USDA dollars going into that? One of my bills is around organic research because they spend less than .1% of USDA dollars on organic research. That’s saying to a farmer, hey you should get into this business, just do it like they did it in the 1800s, it’ll be fine.
What’s the hardest thing about running a farm?
It’s so hard to make money, so hard to make money. And it’s hard work—there’s no leaving at 5 o’ clock. If you got a short haying season you have to get all the hay in before the thunderstorm hits, or maybe you lose an animal. There’s a lot of hard stuff about it.
Do you have a lot of input into the farm and the Nebo Lodge menu, seasonally sit down and plan it out?
We have a really great chef, Amanda Hallowell, and I leave a lot of license to her to do that. My daughter, Hannah, is the general manager of our business. In a sense, I’m a bit of a layer removed. Part of owning that biz is letting people have a certain amount of license and not stepping on their toes. But I certainly have the final say. And I try to eat in the restaurant in the summer as much as I can, I try to go to as many farm dinners. I always let them know what I like, I let them know what I hear from other people. I have a lot of say over what we grow on the farm although we try to make that collaborative, too. Whether we’re growing chickens or not, whether we’re growing pigs or not, what’s on our menu. I have more direct input into the farming just because we’re still constantly trying to figure out, how did that work, should we build another greenhouse, can we make money off of yogurt, it’s a constant back and forth.