An insightful visit with Congresswoman Pingree

By: Nick Benard, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

“So when I write of Maine cookery, I think I am writing American. I think I am writing about the old virtues we think of as part of our culture: resourcefulness, ingenuity, boldness, and imagination.” - Robert P. Tristram Coffin

Sitting in Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s office, surrounded by artwork, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other memorabilia celebrating the breadth and bounty of Maine’s agriculture and wilderness, I was reminded of Tristram Coffin’s love-letter-disguised-as-a-cookbook, Mainstays of Maine. Published in 1944, it’s not so much a collection of recipes as it is a gentle recounting of what makes Maine a unique part of the American landscape. As Congresswoman Pingree talked to our class of master’s students from Arizona State University, we heard a similar story of resourcefulness and imagination, but also one of Maine’s shifting role in agriculture.

Our master’s program, which is focused on sustainable food systems, came to D.C. to see firsthand how different branches of government and outside policy groups impact our food and agricultural systems. As we sat there, Pingree explained that while she did not originally plan to seek political office, she did always have an interest in sustainable agriculture. She recounted how she began working on a farm as a teenager and came up around the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s. Today, when she returns to Maine, she boards a ferry for a one-hour ride out to the island of North Haven that holds both her home and her 200-acre organic farm, Turner Farm. Well, it’s not just a farm, as it also hosts twice-weekly barn dinners in summer, rents out a guest house, and maintains a nearby lodge and restaurant. Agriculture and sustainability issues are not just areas of policy interest for the Congresswoman but topics she is deeply and personally involved in.

When broadly discussing American agriculture, one can expect to hear about certain states and the foods they are known to produce: Iowa and corn, Wisconsin and dairy, Idaho and potatoes. Maine gets tied with lobster, but historically Maine was known as a powerful agricultural force producing a breadth of different crops; “Maine fed the Union army,” the Congresswoman explains to us. But as America shifted agriculture to the Midwest, Maine found itself in a changing position. Pingree explained how she personally saw the poultry industry continue to shrink in Maine in recent years. Today the two largest agricultural sectors are potatoes and wild blueberries.

As she has progressed from a Maine state senator in 1992 to her current role representing Maine’s first district in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, the Congresswoman has seen Maine’s agricultural sector continue to shift and adapt. Maine has seen continued growth in small scale farms, notably with respect to the production of hemp, hops, and jam. What’s also unique about Maine’s modern agricultural form is that the state has the highest per capita percentage of female farmers, as well as a rising percentage of women acting as the primary operator on farms.

To encourage these trends to continue, Pingree stresses the importance of building support networks for beginning farmers, as well as conventional farmers looking to transition to organic farming, and maintaining assistance for existing certified organic farmers. A self-described “soil geek,” Pingree explained her focus on building soil health in a way that benefits farmers, highlighting the need to, “be climate smart, but still allow farmers to make a living.”

Soil health is of particular concern to both the Congresswoman and her constituents, as they continue to grapple with modern day impacts from agricultural decisions made decades ago. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has been a growing source of alarm for Maine dairy farmers, as each year seems to bring the discovery of more farms testing high in PFAS. Pingree explained that PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” as they do not degrade over time, continuing to accumulate in animals, food, and even our own bodies.  In Maine, the source of these PFAS are often the direct result of decisions in the 1970’s to spread sewer waste over fields as cheap fertilizer, not knowing that waste sourced from paper mills would be high in PFAS. These chemicals have been linked to internal organ damage, reproductive harm, and an increased risk of asthma and cancer.

“This destroys land,” the Congresswoman explained, “It contaminates land, it contaminates water supplies, and it contaminates bodies.” Along with the environmental and physical tolls, this is also a major blow to Maine dairy farmers, many of whom are working to be beneficial stewards of the land. “And then they find out—overnight—that they cannot sell their milk or produce,” she lamented. To combat this, Pingree has cosponsored legislation that would establish standards for PFAS, expand wastewater treatment, and formally list two types of PFAS as hazardous chemicals. Ultimately, this would allow the EPA access to clean up PFAS contamination.

While the challenges of PFAS are not over, Pingree ended our visit on a positive note while considering the question, “How do you make progress in government?” Again, she returned to her farming roots. “One of the things most members can work on is agriculture,” she explained. Supporting agriculture and working on the upcoming Farm Bill has broad bipartisan support in both chambers. Also, when one does hit a roadblock, there is always the option of the private sector, with the Congresswoman highlighting plans by General Mills and Land O’Lakes to lay a pathway to climate-friendly foods and agriculture.

It was an inspiring end to an informative meeting for our group. Pingree’s personal journey from organic farmer to influential legislator was especially encouraging to our cohort, as several of us do not come from a policy background but still have the desire to positively impact the processes that shape our food system. We left the offices thankful for the time of the Congresswoman and her staff, knowing they, like the farmers and ranchers they represent, had more work before their day was over.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.