For more than two decades, Sue Sosnowski has had two jobs: farming and representing South Kingstown and Block Island in the Rhode Island Senate. Environment Reporter Avory Brookins caught up with Sosnowski as she seeks re-election Tuesday.
At her farm stand, Sosnowski brushes soil off of a knob-shaped decorative gourd. She picks one up and squeezes its bright yellow skin.
"See how nice and firm they are? That’s what you like, they’ll keep all winter like that. But if they’re rubbery, they’re starting to deteriorate," she said.
Sosnowski and her husband Michael have been farmers for about 30 years. They sell their vegetables, eggs, pumpkins and apple cider off of Route 138 just a few miles from their farm.
Being a state senator wasn’t always on Sosnowski’s mind, but she was familiar with state politics before taking office since she worked as a part-time lobbyist for the Rhode Island Farm Bureau and the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association.
"A senator actually asked me if I’d be interested in running and I ran in 1996 and prevailed and I’m still going today," Sosnowski said.
Twenty-two years later, she’s running unopposed for the same seat.
This Republican-turned-Democrat is one of only three farmers in the Rhode Island legislature. Sosnowski thinks that’s because it’s tough to balance working long hours on the farm and spending time at the Statehouse.
"Certain times of year you don’t get much sleep," she said.
Even so, she said her farm serves as an escape from state politics.
"When the legislature gets really really really hot and contested toward the end of the session I’m driving back to South County and I say, 'I can’t wait to get in the greenhouse, I can’t wait to get into the field,' it’s just really great therapy," Sosnowski said.
Over her two decades in office, Sosnowski has sponsored lots of bills, including ones for no smoking in the workplace, a stricter drunk driving limit and the use of hands-free cell phones in cars. She also helped make the Block Island Wind Farm a reality.
Sosnowski said much of the legislation she votes on in the Senate doesn’t directly impact farmers, but she feels her perspective is important.
"So I’ve tried to relate to my colleagues the needs of agriculture in a way that they can understand," she said.
According to one senator, Sosnowski is great at that.
"In talking to Sue, you see how she relates to who we are as people and how people relate to the earth through her farming. She has a farmer’s soul," Billy Conley, attorney and Democrat who represents East Providence and Pawtucket, said.
Conley sits on the Environment and Agriculture Committee, the same committee chaired by Sosnowski. He said Sosnowski has always been great at helping people outside of the farming community understand agricultural issues.
Conley gave the example of how she recently spoke with him about changes that are pending for a federal food safety law, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which could impact Rhode Island farmers.
"She was able to sit down with me and say, 'Ok, on a day-to-day basis when a farmer starts at 5 o’clock in the morning and ends up at 8 o’clock at night, every single one of these different activities is impacted by these regulations and here’s how it happens,'" Conley said.
The way Sosnowski runs her committee hearings hasn't gone unnoticed either.
Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy at Save the Bay, said he's been to many hearings that last a long time and has never felt rushed by Sosnowski.
"The hearings on legislation are usually thorough and all sides are given the opportunity to speak and to testify," Hamblett said.
As for her voting record, Hamblett said Save the Bay does not endorse candidates. However, the Environment Council of Rhode Island approves of her stance on issues including clean water and renewable energy.
Sosnowski did face an angry backlash from the Humane Society a few years ago after she opposed a bill that would ban the use of small chicken cages on farms. The group told The Providence Journal Sosnowski was doing the "bidding of animal abusers."
Sosnowski doesn’t use chicken cages on her farm. Only one commercial poultry farmer in the state does, but she said she initially opposed the bill because that farmer wasn’t able to testify in the House.
"As anyone else in agriculture should stand up for anyone else in agriculture, they should have the opportunity to speak their peace and make any type of what they feel is an appropriate adjustment to legislation," Sosnowski said.
Since then, the state legislature has passed the bill requiring the cages be phased out by 2026.
However, since she’s the only commercial poultry and produce farmer in the senate, Sosnowski recused herself from the vote. But she feels better about the bill this time around because the one farmer it would impact has had a chance to weigh in on it.
Back at the farm stand, Sosnowski’s husband bags vegetables for a customer. It’s almost 6 o'clock and Sosnowski has to leave to take care of her sheep before dark.
Sosnowski said even though it’s hard work, she loves to farm and she loves being a senator. And she doesn’t plan on giving up either of those jobs anytime soon.
"I say that every year to my husband, as long as we can still grow those potatoes and as long as my back doesn’t give out and as long as the people still keep electing me, we’ll keep at it," Sosnowski said.
She’ll keep at it for at least another two years since she has no opponent on Tuesday.