The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Pingree, Ribble present different views to organic group

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., gave the organic food industry remarkably different perspectives today on how the industry is viewed in Congress and how organic producers and processors should approach members.

Both Pingree and Ribble are members of the House Agriculture Committee.

In a speech to the Organic Trade Association policy conference, Pingree discussed a range of programs that she and other organic advocates hope to include in the farm bill, and said the industry has to work hard to compete with conventional producers for attention.

Ribble, in his own speech, said the organic industry is popular in Congress and particularly with the House Agriculture Committee because it is entrepreneurial and “doesn’t ask for much.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine
Pingree said although Maine was “part of the breadbasket a long time ago,” it had lost that status as agriculture moved west, but was now seeing a revival due to the popularity of organic and locally produced food. The average age of farmers is going down, she said, while cultivation is up.

“We are not just a farming state, we are foodie state,” she said, adding that even though the per capita income in Maine is not particularly high, people like to eat well.

Pingree said she has introduced a “local foods, farm and jobs act” that has attracted 70 co-sponsors, and hopes to get many of its provisions into the farm bill, but “it is one thing to move the market, another to move Congress.” She said members of the House Agriculture Committee have adopted a “mantra” to pass the bill this year, “but who knows?”

One of her goals, Pingree said, is to get rid of the “organic surcharge” that is placed on crop insurance because the Risk Management Agency has determined that organic agriculture, which does not use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, has more dangers to production.

She said she believes the opposite is true — that organic crops are less likely to be damaged in a weather event because the soil in which the crops are grown is better. She also said that even though organic growers have to pay more for crop insurance, their payout is the same as for conventional producers.

“The organic premium piece really makes me angry,” Pingree said.

Pingree said she was pleased that the Senate mark of the farm bill includes whole farm insurance, which organic growers like because so many of them grow a variety of crops.

She also said she would like federal officials to take into consideration the impact of food safety rules on organic producers before they write them.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has introduced a counterpart measure to Pingree’s bill in the Senate, and Pingree said some of those provisions are included in the Senate mark.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., “is not quite as amenable” to organic production as Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., she said.

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis.

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis.
Ribble said many people do not understand the organic food industry, and that its members need to get out the message that “This industry has grown up around healthy foods that people want and are willing to pay a premium for.”

There has been a “Walmarting of America,” in which everything is cheap, Ribble said, “but people are still willing to pay a premium for better quality.”

“You guys are viewed very highly, not as outliers,” he said, adding that the Whole Foods chain of grocery stores has helped elevate the view of “what organic is.”

The United States should and will continue to produce low priced food, but there should also be “choice in food,” he said.

Asked about the labeling of genetically modified food, which the organic industry generally advocates, Ribble said, “You are never going to see the mass production of food change. We’re feeding the world.”

He also suggested that organic producers bring up the GMO issue when they visit with members of Congress in their districts rather than in Washington, and said he believes it will be easier to shift some agricultural research funding from conventional to organic rather than to ask for more money.

He also said Congress does not like “a straight-out handout,” and that members will be more receptive to programs in which there is a non-government partner.

Referring to his philosophy of constituent representation, Ribble said “When this works correctly I am nothing more or less than your mouthpiece. We are here as your messenger to your government.”

He said he expects the House Agriculture Committee to take up the farm bill in June and the full House to take it up in July, and noted that he is “hardly ever optimistic, but I am optimistic we will get a farm bill done this year.”