When it comes to getting things done, Chellie Pingree does not mind getting her hands—or, clearly, her feet—dirty. As an organic farmer with 200 acres on an island off the coast of Maine, she's happy to put in the hard work of tending to her vegetables, pigs and chickens. (Not to mention running her farmstand, inn and restaurant.) And during her weekdays on the Hill in Washington, D.C., she's equally eager to dig into issues like preventing food waste, supporting small farmers, standardizing food-date labels and bolstering organic programs. "One of my big concerns is maintaining the integrity of organic standards and increasing the number of farmers who grow food organically—because we're not meeting the demand, and so much has to be brought in from outside the country, which is tragic," says Pingree. She's also introduced legislation to fund organic research—on practices like pest and weed control and crop rotation—that will help farmers improve their operations. "Right now, only one-tenth of 1 percent of all the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research dollars go toward organic," she says. "Everything else goes into conventional agriculture."
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In fact, no one has played a bigger role in getting policies like these into this year's farm bill than Pingree, who also serves on the House Appropriations Committee's agricultural subcommittee. Her unique background has made her a particularly effective legislator during her nine-plus years in Congress. "I've been an organic farmer since the 1970s, so I have practical experience that's important when you're making public policy," she says. "A lot of members in Congress have no idea how important food and agriculture have become to their constituents—who want to have healthier diets and know what's in their food. And sometimes when my colleagues don't understand an issue or don't have the same level of advocacy that I do, I can make a good case." Whether or not she prevails (the farm bill was overdue for a vote at press time), we can't applaud her efforts enough.
Chellie's food hero: "Eliot Coleman. He is one of the elders in the organic farming movement in the United States. He was actually one of my teachers in college. So I learned all the fundamentals from him."
Life advice being a farmer taught her: "I started working on a farm and growing my own food when I was a teenager. And I did it all through the time I was raising my kids. It taught me a lot about multitasking and about putting in a long day of hard work. It's similar to politics. It keeps you very much in touch with the natural world and I think that's really important when you're making policy, when you're looking into the future."
How this Mainer takes her lobster roll: "It's gotta be on that old-fashioned white hot dog bun, sautéed in butter, and just mayonnaise on the meat. That's how they do it in Maine."