Maine Public: 'A Win-Win' Rep. Pingree On The Agriculture Resilience Act
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Most politicians who care deeply about agriculture hail from the Great Plains, with their seemingly endless fields of corn or soybeans, a region that has long been the source of much of America’s food.
Yet U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree lives on an island in Maine, surrounded by water rather than wheat.
Despite her ocean views, the 1st Congressional District Democrat is the primary champion of a bill that would, if adopted, transform agriculture nationwide by pushing farms to become more sustainable in ways large and small.
At root, what Pingree wants is to create healthier soil that could sop up carbon from the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gases that are steadily warming the planet.
Her Agriculture Resilience Act calls for sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are undermining traditional weather patterns and creating a growing problem for anyone whose livelihood depends on predictable trends, especially farmers.
Former Vice President Al Gore said Pingree’s proposal “rightly puts farmers at the center of a comprehensive plan to achieve net-zero emissions from the U.S. agricultural system by 2040” by harnessing science “to advance regenerative farming practices in order to protect and enhance soil health while removing carbon from the atmosphere.”
In a prepared statement, Gore said that under her plan “American farmers can continue to provide healthy food sustainably, while playing a leading role in solving the climate crisis.”
In Pingree’s view, there isn’t much choice.
The nation has to take a new approach to agriculture that puts science in the driver’s seat, she said, and gives farmers a better shot at making a good living while providing consumers with the food they need.
The reality of politics is that Pingree’s bill is unlikely to pass intact, though parts of it may well wind up in other legislation. She called it “a beginning blueprint” for a new path forward.
Pingree said there is more Republican interest in the issues her bill confronts than most people realize and that some of the traditional lobbying powers in the industry have grown more sympathetic to the idea that agriculture needs to address the climate crisis.
“The market is changing,” the lawmaker said, and some major players in it “are getting behind some of these notions.”
With so much attention necessarily going to COVID-19 issues now, the bill will probably have to wait until January for a big push, Pingree said.
It surely stands a far better chance if Democrats, who already hold the U.S. House, are able to seize control of the U.S. Senate and the White House after November’s election.
“We could be in a very different time,” Pingree said.
ON THE FARM
On a glorious summer morning last week, Steve Sinisi watched as his 6-year-old daughter, Vinka, proudly dug up one Yukon Gold potato after another. She rubbed the dirt off each one and carefully placed it a wooden box as her father reminded her to be careful about scratching its skin.
It was a small moment at the Old Crow Ranch in Durham where one family is trying to maintain a family farm that combines traditional wisdom with the best advice science offers for creating a sustainable future.
Sinisi, who grew up in Wisconsin, has farming in his blood. He also knows what it takes: “Working, working, working, all day long.”
“It’s a love and a passion and a way of life for us and our children and our families,” he said.
Sinisi said everybody in farming has seen “major fluctuations” in the weather that are clearly related to climate change. Farmers know that their future depends on dealing with the carbon-fueled crisis.
People say chimpanzees aren’t all that bright, he said, but they “aren’t destroying their own rain forest.”
“I would like people to be able to continue to farm,” Sinisi said, “and I worry what that will look like.”
He said he has as many as 60 head of cattle, 150 hogs and 2,000 chickens at a time, fed from his own fields that are carefully renewed year after year in a natural cycle that keeps them productive while maximizing their contribution to sucking carbon out of the sky.
Sinisi, who chairs the Androscoggin Valley Soil and Water Conservation District, said he’s happy that Pingree is pushing policies that would help small farms, promote sustainability, improve soil health and help minimize the staggering amount of food waste in America.
He said the giant farms out West have different needs than the many family farms in Maine, but they all share a need to keep a warming climate from racing out of control. Plus, he said, farmers everywhere want to find ways to keep agricultural land productive instead of being turned into house lots.
As Vinka plucked potatoes from the soil, she spotted a bug she insisted was “a green bee.”
Sinisi looked at it carefully and told her that it appeared to be some kind of fly.
Then he reminded her of a lesson she’d had about the way insects camouflage themselves so that they might look like something different than they are, a survival tactic.
Surviving is, after all, what it’s all about.
A GROWING CLIMATE CRISIS
At the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, government scientists determined that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which have been rising since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, reached 417.1 parts per million in May, the highest monthly reading ever.
Pieter Tans, senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, said in the agency’s research report that as a result of increasing levels of greenhouse gas, the earth’s surface is heating, glacial ice is melting and oceans are rising.
His view is commonly accepted among the scientific community, supported by every major scientific organization in the world.
Tans warned this summer that “if we do not stop greenhouse gases from rising further, especially CO2, large regions of the planet will become uninhabitable.”
Dire predictions like Tans are one of the reasons Pingree is determined to address the issue.
She said farmers already know the problem “is bigger than my farm” and are ready for reforms that offer them a path forward.
Pointing out that agricultural activities represent 8.4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, she said her bill would change the equation completely.
She said that within two decades, under her proposal, the nation could “reach net-zero agriculture emissions.”
“Challenges of this scale demand bold solutions and, unlike other industries, agriculture has a unique opportunity to draw down massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil,” Pingree said.
Pingree has long eyed the soil as a solution to problems plaguing modern life.
Growing up in Minnesota, she recalled, she’d visit her grandfather’s dairy farm in the country. While it gave her a taste of agriculture, Pingree readily admits that farming was “the furthest thing from my mind” as a future passion.
It was only later that it caught her interest.
As a young adult, she said she was “sort of a hippie,” a granola cruncher attracted by Scott and Helen Nearing’s lifestyle and book “Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World,” which promoted a back-to-the-land movement and organic farming.
She moved to Maine in the 1970s, which was a hotbed for the movement, and soon learned she really didn’t have a knack for farming.
“I wasn’t good at it,” she said.
Pingree, though, immersed herself in agricultural issues after attending the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor to learn more about organic farming. Her senior project was a feasibility study for a small dairy farm.
After graduation, she and her husband started a small farm on the island of North Haven. Politics followed.
Those youthful ideals that brought her to Maine and kept her focus on farming never left her. She’s watched with appreciation as the state became an ever bigger producer of organic produce on the types of small farms she appreciates.
As the chief backer of a measure to transform American agriculture, she said she’s “come full circle,” happy that she kept her hand in the issue for so many years.
Pingree, who has been in Congress since 2009, serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and the House Agriculture Committee.
WHAT PINGREE’S BILL WOULD DO
Pingree’s plan, detailed in her lengthy and complicated bill, aims to address a range of issues that impact greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture.
It would at least quadruple the amount of federal research money, with edicts to spend the cash on “climate change adaptation and mitigation, soil health, agro-forestry, advanced grazing management and crop-livestock integration, other agro-ecological systems, on-farm and food system energy efficiency and renewable energy production, farmland preservation and viability, food waste reduction and related topics to accelerate progress toward net zero emissions by not later than 2040.”
A new soil health program would be created to try to increase the amount of carbon captured in the soil by 0.4% annually, a move that would reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere and restore soil health, a boon to growers.
Sonny Perdue, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, told Pingree at a hearing last spring that she is “exactly right” in viewing the idea as “really a win-win situation where you sequester carbon in the soil and take it out of the air” while also increasing soil health and productivity.
As part of the effort to restore soil health to at least half what it was three centuries ago, Pingree said farmers might also be able to participate in future carbon markets or get tax credits for sequestering carbon in the soil.
The bill calls for an end to the conversion of farmland to development by 2040. It would also encourage farmers to use more cover crops that don’t leave the land barren and exposed to erosion during the winter and spring, a rising concern as ever more violent storms slam rural America.
Pingree’s measure seeks to stop the creation or expansion of waste lagoons for confined animals, which would encourage grassland by better grazing management.
The bill would require energy audits and energy improvements on every farm, as well as the expansion of “on-farm clean renewable energy production” with infrastructure that doesn’t hurt the land, soil, water or food production.
It would also standardize use-by dates on food labels to reduce consumer confusion and waste.
Colin O’Neil, the legislative director for the Environmental Working Group, said in a prepared statement that Pingree put forth “a bold, visionary plan.”
“No one understands the impacts of the climate crisis better than American farmers, who are already reeling from the effects of extreme weather events,” he said. “It is high time that Washington start treating the climate crisis like what it is — a crisis.”
Sinisi, who is pretty tired by the end of the day on his Durham farm, said he hasn’t had a chance to read the 180-page proposal.
But, he said, he’s glad that Pingree is focusing on the issues that matter to the many people like him who are trying to keep family farms afloat so that people will have good food.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began socking the nation in March, one of the many challenges that quickly emerged was the way grocery store shelves quickly emptied as panicked shoppers sought to stock up.
“We all saw the panic ensue,” Sinisi said. “We all saw the failure of this food system.”
Pingree said the virus exposed something that insiders have long known but the public didn’t really grasp until they saw stores with nothing to sell.
It showed everyone, she said, “how fragile our supply chain is.”
From slaughterhouses that had to close because of the risk to workers, to crops buried in the ground because they couldn’t be shipped or sold, the pandemic slammed a shaky system.
Pingree said the solution, which her bill would help to address, is clearly to decentralize agriculture, to make sure food doesn’t travel so far.
There was a time, she said, when Maine was “a bread basket state,” dotted with small farms that supplied most of what Mainers needed.
As in many things, the past may just wind up as the future as well.
Pingree said the recognition of “what a disaster the food system is” offers hope for remaking it into a system that can work better for the long haul.
What it will take, she said, is looking at the issue through “a carbon crisis/green lens” and taking science seriously.
“I’m really pleased that we have all this stuff kind of ready to go,” Pingree said.