Chellie in Maine Magazine

Have you found yourself shopping around for a new political hero lately?

Someone in the U.S. Congress who speaks her mind? Who breeds dairy cows and grows heirloom tomatoes and doesn’t bend in the fickle Washington wind? Chellie Pingree may be your person.

When she’s not in Washington D.C., she lives on North Haven, a tight-knit island off the coast of Maine where, she explains, “You can’t fake it. There’s a truth meter out here.” It’s ten o’clock in the morning, and my ferry’s landed at the North Haven dock after a crossing though the thickest primordial fog you can dream up.

Pingree meets me in the parking lot, one hand in her jeans pocket, the other holding a cup of coffee, her striking blonde hair cut to her jaw. I ask her if the hundreds of ferry crossings she’s made over the last forty-some years have helped her maintain her own truth meter down in Washington. She laughs, and it’s a warm, throaty laugh. Then she says the ferry makes everyone on the island honest: “You may disagree with a person at town meting, but then the boat going back to the mainland is almost full, and you have to sit next to that same person on the deck.”

She walks me up a hill past a small white house she used to live in with her three kids, then past the tiny lawnmower shed where she ran her first Maine Senate campaign, and on to a larger clapboard inn called Nebo Lodge, which Pingree bought on a wing and a prayer in 2004 when her neighbor said she was selling.

We sit in the fog on Nebo’s porch, and Pingree tells me that when she first landed on North Haven, she was only 16—a fledgling back-to-the-lander with a serious distaste for conventional schooling and a boyfriend named Charlie, who had roots on the island. She’d grown up in Minneapolis with her parents, who were of Scandinavian-farmer stock. Then she went to an inner-city high school. Or rather, she didn’t go. It was the 1960s, a time of what Pingree calls “great anger in the country.”

One day the wise supervisor at a drug abuse hotline where Pingree worked said, “You should go to school more often,” and pressed Pingree to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, of all places, to a nontraditional high school modeled after Outward Bound. Pingree was the youngest of four siblings and “the hardest to raise.” No one in her family had ever gone east.

A few months later she and Charlie drove north to Maine. “We set up shop in Charlie’s grandmother’s cabin down one of the long dirt roads and started raising chickens.” There was no running water, no electricity: “It was the early 1970s. All my friends either protested the war and marched on Washington, or dropped out. Charlie and I had a copy of Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life and we went back to the land.”

It was hard work. But Pingree can work hard. Give her any job—chopping wood, planting a garden, canning vegetables, raising children, rewriting the U.S. Farm Bill—and she’s your woman. But first there was a humbling. There’s usually a humbling in any good hero story.

For Pingree it happened at 17, when she wanted to volunteer at the island school. After her first day, the school board took a quick vote. They didn’t want her back, and they sent the kind principal knocking on her cabin door to inform her. Pingree was shocked. Until then she hadn’t realized “what outsiders we really were,” or how much it mattered to her to belong to the fabric of the island.

It turned out it really mattered. She was longing for that sense of community, a sum bigger than its parts. After the principal left, Pingree said to herself, “I’ll teach them. I’ll go to college. Then they’ll have to hire me.” She wrote her application to College of the Atlantic on the back of sardine packing paper.

When the Pingrees returned to North Haven several years later, they’d been transformed into “a nice young married couple with a baby and a milking cow.” Pingree was now also a trained organic farmer, and they had “real value” to offer the island. She began asking everyone on the island for advice about the cow and the garden: “all the old-timers. I also had an egg delivery route. I’d knock on a door and say, ‘I’ve come with your eggs.’ Then I’d get invited in for a cup of coffee. This was how I learned how to engage with people and learned the history of the island.”

If you read between the lines here, you see the makings of an authentic Maine politician. But Pingree’s thoughts couldn’t have been further from Augusta or Washington back then. She and Charlie had three kids in five years: Hannah, Cecily, and Asa. She was just “trying to survive.”

She now likens North Haven to one long, ongoing Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody takes care of everybody. And everyone plays a part: “We can see into each other’s windows. It’s an extended family. I’ll bring the turkey. You bring the stuffing. We work together.”

By 1981 Pingree had “tons of sheep” on her rented farm and began taking the wool from her flock to be spun. The yarn sat in her farmhouse collecting dust until one of the island women said, “How about I knit some socks and put them in your farm stand?” North Island Yarn was born. It employed ten people at its peak.

The watershed moment that even Pingree still has a hard time getting her head around happens in 1991. She and a friend read about a legendary congresswoman named Pat Schroeder, from Colorado, who’s in Portland for a speech. The two island women pack their daughters into Pingree’s VW bus and head to the city. It’s as if Schroeder’s speech is meant for Pingree, especially when Schroeder says, “There aren’t enough women in politics. And not enough young people.”

The story then goes that Dale McCormick, a Democratic state senator from Maine, runs into Pingree after Schroeder finishes, and McCormick says, “We can’t find anyone to run for our open senate seat.” Then McCormick looks at Pingree and says, “You should do that. You should run.”

Pingree describes it as, “one of the most outrageous, out-of-the-blue ideas. I didn’t know anything about politics. But people started calling me saying they’d heard I was running. Then my face was on the cover of the newspaper. I kept saying No! No! No! But inside I was wondering, why can’t I stop thinking about running?”

Here’s Pingree’s secret to getting elected to the Maine Senate as a Democrat in 1992 when she was all of 37 and had no political experience: call it the egg delivery method. She knocked on basically every door in Knox County. At the time the county was 40 percent Republican, 40 percent Independent, and 20 percent Democratic. Pingree says she ended up “blowing my opponent out of the water.”

After she won, it was suggested that she vote “strategically” on a range of issues to please her diverse constituents. But Pingree drew a line in the North Haven Island sand. “Look,” she said, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to be exactly who I am. I won’t stay in politics if I can’t be the real me. I’m not doing this just to keep a job.”

Pingree and her first husband, Charlie, divorced soon after Pingree was sworn into office. She says, “Getting divorced for many women is like getting punched down into poverty.” What Pingree did was to plunge herself into issues of economic justice in the Senate and become a perhaps unlikely spokesperson for Maine small business: “I may have been a hippie back-to-the-lander. But I had a business. I couldn’t take higher pay so that my employees would suffer. I could never pay them minimum wage. How would they get by?” She also began to carve out space on the Agriculture Committee. Hers was an early, lone voice in the fight against bovine growth hormones and genetically modified food.

After her stint in the Maine Senate, Pingree took a job running a nonprofit for economic justice, called Common Cause, in Washington. But the call to run was still there. She tried for the U.S. Senate in 2002 against Susan Collins, running on an antiwar platform, “but after 9/11 there was no room to move in that race.”

Pingree and I climb into her Jeep and drive out to her farm. She doesn’t wear her seatbelt. I don’t either. But don’t tell anyone. It’s just part of sleepy island life—this chance to let go of some of the control levers. Turner Farm is the 200-acre property that Pingree owns with her second husband, businessman Donald Sussman. This farm could be why the word bucolic was invented: lush sloping fields down to the bay, clean geometry of gardens, red tomatoes on the vine. Baby goats and dairy cows in the fog.

Pingree seems to exhale at the farm. It’s like a second home to her: “If they kick me out of Washington, I can always farm. I’m a very good waitress, too.” She smiles and says, “I’ve waitressed more times than I can count. But I aspire to be a bartender. Because of the listening skills.” Egg delivery, bartending, waitressing, serving as a U.S. Congresswoman: all four jobs require that aforementioned ability to work hard.

Pingree calls the farm a great political equalizer. She can talk cows and chickens with the opposition in Washington. She’s carved out this farm territory assiduously, because she understood early on that when you’re in the minority, like she is in the U.S. House, “you need to find places where you feel effective.” For Pingree it’s about getting toxins out of our soil and air and diet. It’s about saving other small farms all over Maine.

I ask her one last question, the one so many women in Maine have tried to answer this past year: why she didn’t run for Olympia Snowe’s open Senate seat in 2012. We’re leaning against the open barn doors, looking down to the cow pasture. Pingree smiles again and says, “Angus called me and said ‘I’m thinking about it.’ And I said ‘I’m thinking, too.’”

Now she laughs: “I thought it was my turn! But then Angus said he was running. And the door closed. I love my job. I couldn’t give up my House seat to run.”

By the time we climb back into the Jeep and head down the dirt road to Pingree’s and Sussman’s house, the rain’s stopped. Sussman has the fires lit when we walk in, and bluegrass is playing on the stereo. Pingree’s adult children Asa and Cecily are there, and Asa’s eight-year-old son, Smith, and everyone’s barefoot. Sussman welcomes us with a big smile and a bear hug for Pingree.

She says Sussman “was already passionate about farming when I met him. Already living on an island in Maine. Already committed to many of my same social causes.” She never planned on getting remarried. Then she fell in love. Go figure.

Now she sits on the couch by the fireplace and says that working in the Congress has been a way for her “to do something for the people of this island that they would respect. And something I would respect.” Her low-slung house is warm and full of the sounds of family. Smith brings his grandmother an intricate new Lego tower he’s built. Asa laughs with his sister. It’s Sunday morning on North Haven. A place where Pingree belongs. It sort of feels like Thanksgiving.

Reposted from themainemag.com

A Modern Farmer in Congress

By the time Chellie Pingree was elected to represent Maine’s 1st district in the United States House of Representatives in 2008, she had already amassed more than thirty years of farming experience in the state. Her agrarian CV includes: starting an organic farm on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine; running a successful yarn company that used wool from the sheep on her farm; serving on the Agriculture Committee in the Maine State Senate; and renewing her penchant for organic farming with the acquisition and renovation of Turner Farm in 2008. Now, Pingree is in her third congressional term, and in her 5-year tenure, she has served both on the Agriculture Committee and the Agriculture Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

On Wednesday, Congresswoman Pingree took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her farming background, Maine’s local food movement, and the 2013 farm bill.

Modern Farmer: How did you first become interested in farming?

Chellie Pingree: My grandparents were Scandinavian immigrants who came to Minnesota to be farmers. My mom grew up on the farm, and although I wasn’t raised on the farm, we used to go down there on weekends and during the summer. I always had farming in my background, but as a kid, I thought the last thing I would do is be a farmer.

I went to this alternative high school in Massachusetts and I met a boy there who was Maine-bound. He had just read — and everybody was reading — this book called Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. So, I read the book — it was 1971 — and there was this migration of people coming to Maine. There were all kinds of names for this: people living off the land, back-to-the-landers … people who wanted to try sustainable agriculture by following the model of the Nearings. In 1971, I ended up in Maine and we started with a little cabin, cut our wood for firewood, and tried to run this little farm. Really, that’s where I got my start.

I ended up deciding to go back to school and I went to the College of the Atlantic. When I went there, I actually thought I was going to study to be a science teacher, but I started taking classes in horticulture and soil science. I got a work-study job in the college greenhouse and then I started running the composting operation at the school. And one of my teachers was Eliot Coleman, who lived on a plot of land that he had gotten from the Nearings, and so I completely got interested in learning to become an organic farmer.

After college, I moved back to the island of North Haven, in midcoast Maine. By then, I had gotten married to the boy I met in high school and we started a little farm. I worked as a farm apprentice one summer, and then we got a couple of dairy cows, a hundred chickens and about 2 acres of vegetables. That was in 1976.

MF: And you have an organic farm on North Haven now, right?

CP: I do. Fast forward, I started a little business based on selling wool products from the sheep we had begun to raise. Then I became a state legislator. Now, I’m in Congress and my current husband and I decided to buy a farm that’s about 200 years old, but that had been basically abandoned. For the last five years, we’ve been turning it back into a serious farm again.

The first person I called was Eliot Coleman to get some advice. Now we employ hoop houses, the same system he uses. We have a goat dairy, and built our own chicken processing facility. And I have a really great market because we own an inn and a restaurant, so we grow much of the food for the people who come to our restaurant.

MF: To what extent has that experience influenced how you approach public policy?

CP: It’s had an enormous effect on me. First, going back to the days when I was a state legislator, I served on the agriculture committee in the early 1990s when things like genetically engineered products, irradiated food and bovine growth hormones were new topics to most policymakers. In those days, I was willing to get up and talk about them because I was already interested in organic farming and had already been trained in that way.

Now today, I’ve had the chance to serve on the Agriculture committee and now I’m on the Agriculture Appropriations committee, so even though some people find these topics volatile, I can say first hand what the market looks like, what consumers are looking for … I know what it is to milk a cow or weed a field or balance the budget of a farm. I can speak about the experiences I’ve had or the farmers I’ve known over the years. It’s been a great help to me and I also think generally when you love the topic of farming or when you’ve been engaged with the policy of farming, you meet an enormously diverse group of people and you can relate to them either about the food we eat, or for farmers, the job that they do, which is very hard and difficult to make a go of it. That’s just really helpful when you’re considering public policy issues.
MF: There is a tendency to view the local food movement as elitist. Yet, Maine is 38th in GDP per capita in the United States and is nevertheless among a few other states that are leading the way for the local food movement. What does that say about the alleged elitism of farmers markets, CSAs and other community-driven agriculture?

They want good tasting food and they want to keep farmers and farms in their area. I don’t think that’s something that’s specific to rich people. I think that’s relevant for people who love their community.

CP: Frankly, that’s one of my favorite statistics. In a state like ours that isn’t, when compared with other states, wealthy but where people really want to eat well and cook healthy foods … if people in our state are flocking to farmers markets or the local foods section of their grocery store or seek out the farmer who grows organic food, it shows that even on limited dollars, people want to have good, healthy food. People have been really interested in the programs that make it possible to take your SNAP cards to the farmers markets or to join a CSA with your SNAP benefits.

And I find that anecdotally. If I’m talking to a group of Mainers at a town meeting or a high school graduation, and I start talking about local, healthy foods, about getting more locally grown foods in the school lunch program, making it easier for people at all income levels to buy locally grown foods, people perk right up. They want good tasting food and they want to keep farmers and farms in their area. I don’t think that’s something that’s specific to rich people. I think that’s relevant for people who love their community. Maine is very rural, very small-town-oriented, and nothing makes people happier than to see a farm move into the community or come back to life again, and being able to take their kids and grandkids there to visit.
MF: Turning to the national scene, now that a farm bill has passed in the Senate, what are the most important hurdles the bill faces before it becomes law?

CP: I think it will come to the floor of the House, probably next week. There will be a tremendous number of amendments and a little bit of a struggle to move it through the House because the farm bill represents such a diverse range of issues in the sense that it contains all the food programs, and there are big differences of opinion on getting it through the House. But it moved through the Senate, so I believe there’s a good chance it will come out of the House in the next week or two and then most likely go to conference and spend some time with people working out the differences. But I think unlike last year, where we couldn’t even get it to come to the House floor, there’s a much better chance it will move forward this year. And it won’t be perfect, but we have certainly worked to put a lot more language in there around local and sustainable farming.

MF: What do you think is different about this year in terms of the debate coming to the House floor?

CP: The Republican majority has held it up from coming to the floor, and while there are still some issues there, there is a pressure from many members of that caucus to get the farm bill implemented because there are so many issues that can’t get resolved until the bill actually comes to the floor.

MF: You reintroduced the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act in April. Where does that bill factor into the current debate?

CP: Basically because the farm bill is this huge piece of legislation with multiple titles, we took as much as we could from our bill — and Sherrod Brown had a companion bill in the Senate — and we’ve tried to work as many pieces as we possibly could into both the Senate version of the farm bill and the House version of the farm bill. Some of the things we haven’t gotten included, we will introduce as amendments next week when it comes to the floor. We’ve gotten a lot of the things that we care about into the bill: mostly things that affect school lunch programs, local food and farming, value-added producer grants, and crop insurance that deals with diverse and organic crops … things that are important to farmers that we’ve learned a lot about in Maine.

MF: Mark Bittman characterized the substitution of federal crop insurance for direct payment subsidies as a “bait and switch.” Do you think that is a fair assessment?

CP: Yeah, pretty much so. That’s one of the big parts of the bill which we’ve really had no negotiating power over. On the one hand, it took direct payments, which liberals and conservatives both agree were often going to the wrong people, and were doing nothing to really support farmers, and certainly not family farms, and turned it into a crop insurance program. Now, crop insurance has its value and we’re even pushing some level of crop insurance for organic farmers, for diversified farms, but they’ve developed a sort of inflated insurance program that gives a lot of money back just to specific commodities. It’s highly subsidized by the taxpayer and it’s highly subsidized at the insurer’s level, so many insurance companies are subsidized to sell it, and many of them are offshore insurance companies. It’s just got a lot of flaws, it costs a lot of money and people are really angry about it.

The farm bill is just a huge range of titles. There are some parts that we really like; there are some parts that we’re just as angry as everybody else about. We’re just trying to fix those things that we can actually get fixed and this has been one that has been an incredible uphill battle to make any changes to it.

MF: As someone who has seen several sides of the farming industry, what would be your most important piece of advice for the conscientious consumer?

CP: It’s really great to support farmers whenever and in any way that you can. When a consumer can make a decision to buy food from a local farmer, a family farm, a small farm that’s based in their region, it does an enormous amount to help farming as an industry and to help those communities that are economically impacted. It helps our environment. You’re more likely to know what’s in your food and you can look the farmer in the eye and say, “So, tell me how you grew this” and “What am I about to eat?” The more everybody does it as an individual consumer, the more our world will go back in that direction.

MF: And the conscientious voter?

CP: The conscientious voter should really push their member of Congress and their state legislature on these issues. Tell them how important it is to have food that is sustainably grown, that has a limited amount of chemicals and unhealthy substances. Let the people who serve you in public office know how important the quality of the food you eat is and that you want more people able to farm on the land that surrounds all of our communities.

Reposted from Modern Farmer.

Service

Chellie Pingree understands that our veterans deserve the very best. They put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, and we owe these heroes a great debt.

Pingree urges cruise ships to serve Maine lobster

The congresswoman says she’s written a letter to the owner of 15 cruise lines, imploring them to buy local lobster while in Portland.

PORTLAND — U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, thinks it would be a great idea if the cruise ships that bring tens of thousands of visitors to Portland each year were to serve locally harvested lobster to their guests.

Pingree on Monday announced in a press release that she had written letters to the owners of 15 cruise ship lines, urging them to buy lobster from Maine fishermen for their passengers while in port.
Pingree said she wrote the letter because the cruise ship industry serves a lot of lobster to its passengers but the ships that visit Portland have not typically ordered lobster from local suppliers.

In one letter sent to Micky Arison, Chief Executive Officer of Carnival Cruise Lines, Pingree wrote: “I am writing to you today to strongly urge you to consider buying fresh-off-the-boat Maine lobster when the Carnival Glory calls in Maine this year. Maine lobstermen are in the middle of a record breaking season.

“Not only does the ample supply guarantee a good value for your company, but purchasing locally sourced seafood would set a great example for other companies like yours in strengthening Maine’s economy and coastal communities,” Pingree wrote. “In fact, the vitality of our fishing industry is inextricably linked to the health and character of the coastal communities that entice and thrill your passengers.”

Fifteen cruise ships are scheduled to make a total of 60 visits to Portland this year, according to city documents.

More than 69,000 passengers are scheduled to visit Portland via cruise ships this year, the documents show.

“This could be a big untapped market for wholesalers in the area,” Pingree said. “And sometimes in a situation like this you just have to get the attention of the head of these big corporations to get them to notice what we have to offer here in Maine.”

Willy Ritch, Pingree’s spokesman, said the congresswoman is not suggesting the cruise ship passengers only be fed only lobster for their meals but that they have locally harvested lobster offered for dinner on their arrival or departure from Portland.

Ritch said Pingree is serious and plans to follow up on her letters by speaking directly with cruise industry executives this week.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

This article originally appeared in the Portland Press Herald. Photo by photommo available under a Creative Commons license.

An Organic Farmer In The U.S. Congress

Not many farmers and restaurateurs have much in the way of spare time. Chellie Pingree managed to become a farmer, a restaurant/B&B owner and a United States Congresswoman all within the span of a couple of decades. The mother of three has represented Maine’s first congressional district since getting elected in 2008, and has become an outspoken advocate of local food and farms during her time in Washington.

Inspired by the book The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living, Pingree became part of the “back-to-the-land” movement as an organic farmer in the 1970’s on Maine’s North Haven Island. She went on to become the owner of Nebo Lodge Inn & Restaurant on North Haven and entered state politics in 1992. As a Congresswoman in Washington, she drafted the Local Farm, Food and Jobs Act with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, proposing much-needed overhauls and updates to elements of the Farm Bill, with provisions aimed at encouraging local, sustainable agriculture.

As part of Food Republic’s Michel Nischan Guest Editor Week, Pingree fills us in on running a Maine farm, tackling the Farm Bill and her side interest in bartending.

What got you interested in farming in the 1970s? Were many other people of the same mindset?

When I moved in the ‘70s there wasn’t a lot of farming going on but there were still a lot of old timers who had been farmers. In previous centuries, North Haven had all been farms. North Haven was on the pathway of steamships to Boston so farmers could sell them their goods. In 1860 there were 80 farms, which is a lot considering this island only has 350 people today. The Ritz in Boston had North Haven lamb on the menu. I learned a lot from the old time farmers. Even though they kind of saw me as this strange “back-to-the-land” hippie, I think they really appreciated that we were supplying fresh milk and eggs.

Why do you think there are more young farmers coming to Maine today?

It’s so interesting because when I came in the ‘70s it was a little bit marginalizing to be an organic farmer, and today it’s become so much more mainstream. As the average consumer looks for organic food in Walmart and young people look at career options and want to get involved in food production there’s more interest. The average age of farmers in Maine is going down and the number of farms is actually going up.

We’re a great example of bucking the trend, which goes back to Earl Butz’s (Nixon and Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture) view of agriculture, “get big or get out.” Consumers in the marketplace really want sustainable, organic food they can trust, and young people see it as a viable lifestyle. There are a lot of hitches along the way though, partly because of agriculture policy.

How did you and Senator Brown decide to collaborate on the Local Farm, Food and Jobs Act?
We tried to take the most critical parts of the Farm Bill and bring them together. For instance — more support for farmers markets, easier to use EBT [food stamps] cards, and improvements in the school lunch program.

During the Super Committee hearings, there was talk that the Farm Bill would become part of it. We’re not really sure if the chair of the Agriculture Committee will move the Farm Bill this year or after the election, but by introducing [the Act] already we garnered a lot of interest. We have over 60 sponsors and we’ve done public speaking and gotten a lot of farmer support. I knew there were so many people interested in food policy who wanted a vehicle that really did enhance the local food movement and gave funding to regional farming efforts. There just wasn’t any way to do that before.

Were you surprised to get so much support from fellow members of Congress?
Absolutely, I was surprised. We started with the Agriculture Committee, but then we really took it around to many of our colleagues who aren’t even really interested in agriculture per se, and they’d say, “Oh yeah, there’s a big organic movement in my local town,” so we had a lot of members sign on.

You’ve had a series of challenging jobs – running a farm, a restaurant and being a Congresswoman. Which have you found the most challenging?
It’s never easy to run a restaurant although I do like being the bartender — it’s a good way to hear what people have to say. But seriously, this is a very difficult time to be a member of Congress. It’s hard to feel like you’re part of a body that has so little respect and in which, in my opinion, members are not in touch with the needs of their constituents. It’s just going unaddressed. For me it’s a very frustrating time. I believe we know what should be done to change our economy and to do business correctly and people are just unwilling to fight against special interest groups and all the rest.

What do you think is the best way for people to get involved and make a difference in the food system?
I really think the Farm Bill can be a little obscure, but it is the one vehicle we have to change policy and show consumers who want to push back how to do things differently. [People] should talk to their member of Congress and say it’s an issue that matters to them. Consumers can spend money on buying locally and meeting farmers, and you can do that on all economic levels because you can use EBT at many markets.

This article first appeared in Food Republic.

Paid for by Pingree for Congress