Rep. Chellie Pingree wants to bring the nation’s farmers and ranchers to the forefront of the climate change discussion.
The Maine Democrat, a longtime farmer and advocate for organic agriculture, is pushing Congress to do more to listen to growers on the issue.
“We kind of have to re-engage in the vocabulary of climate change,” Pingree, who was elected to the House in 2008, told Bloomberg Environment.
For years, climate change was a touchy subject with farmers and ranchers, worried that environmental regulations could harm their bottom line. Even Tom Vilsack, President Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary, said in 2015 that he preferred the term “weather variation” over climate change when talking to farmers about extreme heat, droughts, and flooding.
But Pingree said she sees a lot of potential for farmers to help curb greenhouse gas emissions by generating renewable energy with their animals’ waste, or using their farms’ soil to absorb carbon.
“I think the public has stepped up and started to say, ‘I want to know what my lawmaker is doing to deal with this pending crisis,’ and ‘I want to buy products that are being manufactured or grown in a way that is part of the solution, not the problem,’” she said.
Pingree sits on the House Agriculture Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, where she’s reached across the aisle to address agriculture’s role in climate change.
She recently met with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to talk about creating carbon markets in which growers could be compensated for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their operations.
Maintaining healthy soil, for example, traps carbon and prevents it from escaping into the atmosphere and heating up the earth. If the Agriculture Department could quantify that carbon in the soil and convert it into credits, those could be bought, sold, and traded in emissions markets like California’s cap-and-trade system or the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and would also give farmers an additional source of income, she said.
“I think that the secretary understands that those are questions that could appropriately be engaged in at the Department of Agriculture,” Pingree said.
A spokeswoman for Perdue didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Environment’s request for comment on whether the agriculture secretary supports carbon markets for agriculture.
Vilsack, now president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said at a May 21 Senate Agriculture Committee on climate change that farmers would benefit from the additional money from generating carbon credits. It’s already a common practice to keep soil nutrient-rich and improve resilience to drought.
“This is a terrific opportunity for American agriculture to create multiple new revenue streams, and that to me is what’s exciting about this,” Vilsack told reporters.
Lobsters Raised Awareness
Pingree first experienced climate change head-on via her state’s iconic crustacean.
Pingree lives in the lobster fishing community of North Haven on an island off the Maine coast. Around 2012, fishermen started telling her of unusual species—like black sea bass, triggerfish, and sea horses—getting caught in their traps.
The presence of black sea bass, typically found south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, was especially worrying because they prey on baby lobsters.
“In Maine, the ocean is warming at a rate faster than almost anywhere else, we’re just so aware of it,” Pingree said.
Pingree was born in Minnesota, the granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrants who worked as dairy farmers. She came to Maine as a teenager in the 1970s. A self-described “back-to-the-lander,” she lived in a cabin at the end of a dirt road with no running water or electricity.
She’s made some upgrades. Her current home has solar panels and better insulation, but she said she’s still “unhinged” from the electric grid.
She studied organic agriculture at the tiny College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. In 1981, she opened North Island Yarn and grew the small shop into a mail-order and retail knitting kit business.
Pingree’s first election was to the state Senate in 1992, when she defeated the incumbent in a Republican-leaning district. Four years later, she became Senate majority leader. One of her three children, Hannah Pingree, followed in her mother’s political footsteps to become speaker of the Maine House.
The elder Pingree left the state Senate in 2000 and ran an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign against Sen. Susan Collins (R) in 2002. She subsequently became president of Common Cause, the government and campaign watchdog group, before leaving in 2007 to run for her seat in the U.S. House.
She and her daughter have both been mentioned as possible challengers to Collins in 2020. But Pingree dismissed such talk.
“I’m pretty happy in the majority in the House,” she said. “I don’t think either one of us is going to be her challenger.”
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