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'A Win-Win' Rep. Pingree On The Agriculture Resilience Act

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Photo
In this photo made Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, high school students clean up outside the Buck Farm potato storage facility in Mapleton, Maine

Agriculture in the United States is responsible for an estimated 8 to 9 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions, but it's also one of the industries most at the mercy of climate. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is putting those two concepts together in her Agriculture Resilience Act, calling for American agriculture to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years.

Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell about the effort with Congresswoman and farmer Chellie Pingree.

Mitchell: What are the basic goals here?

Pingree: Our interest was in getting really into the nitty gritty about how you support agriculture, how you reduce greenhouse gases, how you meet consumer need. It has a lot to do with how we enhance the ability of farmers to sequester carbon in the soil. Now, that gets a little bit geeky, but in Maine, we know very well that trees are important because they sequester carbon as they grow. It's part of the photosynthesis process. They take carbon out of the atmosphere, put it into the tree, and they grow, and plants do exactly the same thing. The wonderful thing about plants and agriculture is they leave behind some of that carbon in the roots, in the soil and in the organic material. And also you can enhance it more by the practices that you use, adding compost, a lot of other things. But it's a really important part of mitigating some of the problems we're experiencing now of excessive carbon in the atmosphere.

And also many of those practices that help capture more organic matter in the soil also enhance the farmer's ability to deal with drought resistance or excess water or just have higher yields. So we look at it as a win-win, but we need to have much more focus on it, so we're not just treating agriculture as the problem, but seeing it as a really important part of the solution moving forward.

I speak to a lot of farmers in the course of work, and often when I mention a new bill or new legislation, I'm met with eye-rolling and groans because there's fear of more rules, regulations, maybe the unfunded mandate, more paperwork. So could you just talk a little bit about that? Maybe, for folks who might be listening to this thinking 'oh well, here we go again, there's going to be more onus on me when I'm just trying to make milk?'

Absolutely. And we're very aware of that. We meet with a lot of farmers. I serve on the Agriculture Committee, and I think we've met with over 100 different groups from all sectors, you know, sort of talk about what do they want? How can we make sure that the USDA is a better partner? And so a lot of what we're doing is really using existing programs, many of them conservation programs that farmers already take advantage of -- programs that support renewable energy on the farm, manure management -- these are many things that are already out there and existing, but enhancing the funding, putting stronger goals in there. Almost everything in the bill is a carrot, not a stick. So it's incentive-based, but it's also recognizing that as we're challenged with climate change, farmers need more support to make sure they're resilient against, you know, drought or flood or invasive species or a whole variety of things that they're experiencing, but also recognizing that when farmers are using good practices, they should be recognized.

I think we're going to see a huge change in the marketplace as consumers start to demand more and more, you know, 'how is this product grown? Is it healthy for the environment?' We want farmers to be ready for those markets. We want them to be available. If we have carbon markets that allow you to measure the carbon you sequestered in the soil, and that's an added benefit, those payments should go to farmers, not just necessarily to forest products.

 So what's at stake here? Why do this? And what if we don't?

Climate change is a huge threat to future generations. I mean, I know I don't want my grandchildren to look back and say, you know, what were you doing when we should have fixed these problems? So I think all of us take this very seriously. I think in Maine, where we've seen the huge impact already and the changes in our fisheries, this could be our number one or number two threat going into the future. And so we wanted to tackle one segment of it that we know well, that we know can have an impact. I mean, I think it's really critical that we do our part here. I see it as one of the most important issues that I'm working on.

Mitchell Congresswoman Chellie Pingree joining us from her office in Washington, D.C. to talk about her Agriculture Resilience Act.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Originally published 8:51 a.m. Feb. 29, 2020