How to Revive Local Agriculture in the United States

Small farms are eager to meet growing demand for local, sustainable, and organic food—if only the federal government would trim regulations and get behind their efforts.

“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.”

Pingree moved to fill that void. She’s used her seat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that deal with agriculture to become one of the more influential House lawmakers on these issues. She spoke about her efforts at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

Pingree’s approach reflects a broader shift in how federal policymakers address agricultural policy. As consumers become more conscious of the origins of the foods they eat, the demand for locally grown, sustainable, and organic products is growing far faster than the available supply. Two of her fellow panelists—Walter Robb, the co-CEO of Whole Foods, and Jeff Dunn, the president of Campbell Fresh—emphasized that support for expanding supply isn’t just good policy; it’s good business. “A lot of this is no longer being driven by environmental concerns or health concerns or ideology” on the part of the farmers, Pingree said, but by their awareness of the economic opportunities that meeting market demand represents.

Pingree has ventured to Cuba, an island that adopted many organic methods when the collapse of the Soviet Union cut off its supply of industrial fertilizers and pesticides, to help its leaders understand the opportunities that lie to the north. But most of her efforts have focused on the hurdles facing American farmers, who are seeking to meet the rising consumer demand.

But two sets of hurdles lie in their way. One is regulatory. State and federal rules are often tuned for industrial-scale operations, and can be difficult for smaller producers to navigate. The other is a lack of support. “Part of the challenge in the growth of small farms and medium-size farms is that we’ve lost a lot of our infrastructure over the last 50 years,” Pingree said. She pointed, for example, to the consolidation of slaughterhouses, which may now be distant from smaller producers. And a variety of federal efforts that once supported local farmers have withered away.

On Pingree’s organic farm on the island of North Haven, she raises pigs, chickens, and acres of vegetables, and produces cheese and yogurt from her milch cows. As a young farmer 40 years ago, she’d take her to an agent of the USDA’s cooperative extension system. “I asked him things about processing milk, or pests that I had to deal with, or organic soil amendments.” It helped her understand how crucial a role the department could play in fostering small farms.

And it’s left her keenly disappointed with the lack of federal investment or support. Young farmers today may not find an agent from the cooperative extension system who can answer their questions.  “They’re now dramatically underfunded, and they tell me that in a state like Maine where there are farmers with a million questions,” they can’t keep up with demand, Pingree said. Young farmers are looking for advice not just on raising crops, but also “with business techniques or marketing their product.” But they find few answers.

Similarly, the USDA continues to funnel much of its research funding into large-scale agriculture, even though organic farming is a far faster growing market, and can offer higher margins. One major USDA research program spent 2 percent of its funds on organics between 2010 and 2014; another spends just 0.1 percent annually on such research.

Pingree points to Maine’s agricultural revival as a national model. In the United States, the average farmer is now 58 years old. But in Maine, increasing numbers of young people and women are going into farming, and the number of farms is on the rise.

“It would be such an opportunity for the USDA to be looking at this, and seeing economic opportunities, and being more supportive,” Pingree said.