“I think this administration has really missed their chance to do some innovative things, but also to help the rural economy,” Representative Chellie Pingree said on Monday. The Maine Democrat is upset that even as demand for local, sustainable, and organic agriculture has boomed, the Obama administration has done little to support the efforts of small farmers to supply it. In her view, it’s a wasted opportunity.
Pingree is, at one level, an unlikely leader on the issue. The Committee on Agriculture of the United States House of Representatives has six subcommittees and 45 members. It is entirely devoted to crafting a national policy on how America raises and provides access to food. Pingree—although herself an organic farmer—isn’t on it.
In fact, when the Maine Democrat first won election to Congress, she expected to work on health care, an issue on which she’d made her mark at the state level. But finding Congress oversupplied with health-care wonks, she turned, instead, to an issue with which she has a highly personal engagement: food.
“I was literally shocked when I got to Congress in 2008,” Pingree recalled. “I was very interested in farming, I have worked on these kinds of issues all my life, and I’d seen this amazing beginning of a turnaround in interest in growing food.” But it hadn’t yet translated to congressional interest. The Agriculture Committee was packed with members from districts with big agribusinesses, or which produced commodities, or with constituents reliant on SNAP benefits—the program once known as food stamps. But there wasn’t as much interest in approaching these issues from the perspective of small farmers and ordinary consumers. “On these issues,” she said, “which are so popular with the public, there seemed to be no one involved.”