Chellie Pingree is not your average member of Congress. Before joining the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, she had a long career as a state lawmaker in Maine. But before that, she spent more than a decade managing a yarn business using wool spun from sheep she had raised herself. The business boomed, and soon yarn stores and catalogs across the country were carrying Pingree’s products. And she did all of that after starting an organic farm on North Haven, a tiny island off the coast of Maine, when she was barely out of her teens.
Pingree’s long history in sustainable farming, from growing vegetables and raising sheep to serving on Maine’s senate agriculture committee, make her a powerful and unique voice in the halls of Congress. She has served on the House Agriculture Committee, and now sits on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, a position where she is working to send resources to sustainable and up-and-coming farmers. While she stays busy in Washington, Pingree hasn’t forgotten her roots. She and her husband still manage an organic farm on North Haven, which boasts a wide array of crops, several breeds of livestock, and a small organic creamery.
We spoke with Pingree about her path from the field to the Hill and back, and about how consumers can help Congress to change our food system.
How did you get started working in the food system?
I came from a family of Scandinavian immigrants who came to the Midwest to be farmers. I grew up thinking, “I’m never going to learn how to farm.” But, I ended up meeting a boy and coming to the East Coast. Everybody at the time was reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s book Living the Good Life, which is all about sustainable farming, and the Nearings were here in Maine. I immediately got into the politics and lifestyle of sustainable farming.
I got involved working with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and trying to start my own growing operation with very little skills. I went to College of the Atlantic; Eliot Coleman was teaching there and I focused on organic farming. I was so fortunate to learn from him because he had been a protege of the Nearings, and he taught me an enormous amount. [Organic] wasn’t considered an economically viable way to farm and there weren’t a lot of ways to learn about it. Everyone sort of treated you like a hippie, back-to-the-lander. It was very divisive between the conventional farmers and the organic farmers.
How have things changed since you began farming in the 1970s?
Twenty years ago, when I got elected to the Maine legislature and I sat on the agriculture committee in my first term, [organic] was considered this fringe idea. Fast forward and now practically every land grant college has a sustainable agriculture program. It’s a growing economic market, which has provided huge opportunities in a state like mine, where dairy farmers who were going out of business now have competition if they want to sell organic milk. I go to meetings today with dairy farmers to talk policy and I can’t tell who in the room is the conventional farmer and who is the organic farmer.
The world has changed dramatically, in many ways driven by consumers who say, “I want to know what’s in my food and I want it to taste better and I want it to be healthy for my kids.”