If you’re like me, you’ve spent the last couple of months reassessing the future. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election was not what I expected.
As a policymaker—especially with my work in agriculture—it’s forced me to re-approach questions I previously thought I had answers to (or at least educated guesses).
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot to go on in finding those answers. Food and farming did not come up much on the campaign trail. And Secretary of Agriculture was one of the last Cabinet nominees to be announced, just the day before President Trump’s inauguration.
At this early date, we still have a lot to learn about what former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue’s priorities will be at USDA. I appreciate his government and farming experiences, but I worry that he may not be familiar with the diversity of agriculture across the country.
Overall, I’ve appreciated the Obama Administration’s proactive support of things like improving nutrition in school lunches, increasing access to fresh produce for those who receive food assistance, and helping small- and medium-scale farms meet the rising consumer demand for local food. I hope Mr. Perdue does not undercut these important gains and that he understands one size does not fit all in farming. I will try to enlist his help in continuing to advance growing markets—including local food—that provide long-term economic opportunities for farmers.
All that said, an important area where I am not quite so concerned is the organic industry. For three reasons I’ll outline below, I think the organic industry is still positioned to make positive gains under President Trump, his administration, and allies in Congress.
1) Strength of the industry
As the President might say, the growing market and demand for organic is “yuuuge.” The Organic Trade Association reported that the U.S. organic industry had a record year in 2015—with sales of over $43 billion and 11 percent growth from the year before. Amazingly, 13 percent of the produce sold in this country is now organic.
When I became an organic farmer in the 1970s, it was considered a radical thing. At the time, most people saw organics as a hippie novelty. These numbers show that it’s a novelty no more. For a variety of reasons—including taste and quality, environmental impact, and health and wellness—consumers want access to organic products. And it’s not just the wealthy. In my home state of Maine, most people are of modest means. But they are completely willing to pay an extra buck or two for an organic hamburger.
The organic industry should feel comfortable that those demand trends show no sign of slowing down. But you should also remember to use this growth as leverage with the incoming administration. With President Trump’s stated pledge to support rural America during the campaign, I would expect his administration to have an interest in supporting an area of the rural economy that is experiencing great growth and can do even more with the right kind of support.
2) Agriculture is not red or blue issue
As much as rising demand and the private sector have done to grow the organic industry, I do think there are ways the federal government can and should help.
One is correcting the terrible imbalance in research funds. In recent years, organic projects have received less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the funding awarded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative—the flagship research program at UDSA—although organic products make up about five percent of the total food market. That’s unacceptable. Other areas where the government can play a role include addressing pesticide and genetic drift, improving organic crop insurance, and better supporting farmers who are transitioning to organic production.
Even with a Republican-controlled Congress and the incoming administration, I’m hopeful that we can still get many of these things done. And as we get ready for the upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill, I’m preparing to introduce legislation to move the organic industry forward.
I’m optimistic because agriculture has always been an area where I’ve been able to make progress, even as a member of the minority party. Agriculture issues often fall out of political lines because members are looking to support what’s going on back home. To give a recent example, I sent a letter to the USDA with two Republicans to ask for an increase in staff positions for hops research. We all represent hop growers at home and want to support that industry.
I am also looking for ways that we can find flexibility for regulations that burden small operations—a message that resonates with my Republican colleagues. Last year, I introduced legislation with Rep. Thomas Massie to exempt slaughtering from federal regulations and let state rules apply if the meat is sold within the state. Congressman Massie raises grass-fed beef in Kentucky.
3) The credibility of your voices
As farmers and entrepreneurs, OTA members bring an incredibly powerful voice to the table. I think that will be very important with the incoming administration.
You’re the best ones to educate officials and lawmakers about this industry, its incredible growth and its bright future. You’re the best ones to explain how federal programs help or harm your operations and the market in which you operate. And you’re the best ones to advocate for what your industry needs to continue being a bright spot in the country’s agriculture economy.
As the new administration begins work in the coming weeks, I hope they hear from you. And, as Congress prepares for the next Farm Bill, I hope to hear from you as well. Take care. //
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has been an organic farmer for over 40 years on the island of North Haven, Maine. She was first elected to Congress in 2008, where her committee assignments have included the Agriculture Committee and Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. She has led efforts in Congress to support smaller-scale, regional food systems, spearheading several successful reforms to the 2014 Farm Bill. Her website is www.pingree.house.gov.