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by Jonathan Thomas
“We are not all Farmer Brown” is the implied message from local farmers who spoke in recent interviews.
They were responding to events emanating from a state lawsuit filed on November 3 for farmer Dan Brown’s alleged violations of food laws. On November 18, supporters held a rally for Brown, who operates Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill. (See November 23 issue of The Weekly Packet.)
The lawsuit, filed by the Maine Attorney General’s office on behalf of the Maine Department of Agriculture, alleges that Brown sold milk without a “milk distributor’s license,” sold non-pasteurized milk “in a container not labeled as Not Pasteurized,” and operated a “food establishment” (which is defined in part as a location where foods are processed prior to sale) without a license.
On November 28 Brown confirmed that lawyers from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund are defending him. According to the Web site of this nonprofit located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., its purpose is “Defending the rights and broadening the freedoms of family farms and protecting consumer access to raw milk and nutrient- dense foods.”
Brown said the court has extended his time to reply to the lawsuit until Thursday, December 29. He said during the interim he will have several tests done on his milk. “I just don’t understand how there can be a quality problem with the milk when we’re drinking it every day,” he said. He also said there is a lot more he would like to say, but that he is refraining on the advice of his lawyers.
Kevin Poland, a Blue Hill resident who farms in Brooklin, said that although there is a general camaraderie among farmers, not all local farmers are “on board” with Brown’s actions. He said farmers have an “obligation” to their customers to assure them that their products have been licensed and checked over. According to Poland, obtaining licenses from the state is easier now than it was years ago. “It’s not a difficult process to go through,” Poland said.
Poland said state officials have told him that they offered to help farmers who complain a lot about being licensed, and that these farmers “refused” these offers of state help.
Blue Hill is one of several towns in the area that passed local food sovereignty ordinances. Poland’s view is that the charges against Brown do not relate to that ordinance.
Not all local farmers completely agree. Penobscot farmer Paul Birdsall views the ordinance as a way to support “the things we [farmers] could do if perhaps the rules and regulations were less strict.”
Birdsall cited as an example state rules regarding having a licensed chicken slaughtering facility. Such a facility might cost $15,000 or $20,000 to build. But only that farmer himself could use it. He could not lease it to his neighbor and thereby recover some of the cost. “That sounds pretty unreasonable. My hope was that the model ordinance would spread like wildfire,” Birdsall said, “and if enough towns passed it, it would probably get the politicians to pay a little bit of attention, and maybe be a little more reasonable in what they require. I think the more locally grown food the better, and I think that applies pretty much around the country.”
Birdsall said he is not familiar enough with the details of the Brown case to comment on it. However, he said, “It behooves all of us who signed onto the ordinance to live up to the standard, especially when you get into a product like milk—you have to be pretty darn careful.”
Brooksville farmer Bob Bowen, who has had a dairy license for his goat farm for many years, said that for the last 20 years he and some other farmers have been working with Maine’s agriculture department to have just enough regulation and “local control” at the state level, vis-à-vis the federal government, so that the federal government would not have an excuse to step in and take over.
Citing his wife’s cheese-making business, Bowen said he is concerned that publicity spotlighting the sale of uninspected raw milk will harm the dairy industry as a whole.
Regarding state relations with local farmers, Bowen said the state officials are helpful if local farmers are willing to work with them. He also said dairy licenses are inexpensive compared with New Hampshire and include inspection.
Grower and food processor Laura Livingston of Blue Hill said she shares the views of those who believe food regulations are unreasonable. She wrote a three-page chronology of the difficulties she had in obtaining licenses for a certified home kitchen and the recipes for the foods, such as sauerkraut and fermented beans, that she planned to prepare.
Livingston said she needed the services of a lawyer at the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund for a necessary license to prepare and sell one product even when it was excluded from needing a license because of its pH (acidity) level, as tested.
She currently is selling both fresh and fermented vegetables grown in a “high tunnel” greenhouse in Blue Hill. She said that the each vegetable product recipe requires its own $20 license (which does not include transportation costs for mandatory testing in Orono). Also, if the same product is sold in both pint and quart jars, a separate license is needed for each size container.
Livingston said that it is “pointless” to get such licenses for each of the several vegetables she processes, which include chard, kale, collards and poc choy. Sometimes the gross sales from a particular crop are less than the cost of the license.
First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said she has taken notice of small farmers’ concerns. In a November 18 letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Pingree said the agency is using its scarce resources on “what many believe to be overzealous enforcement of the ban on the interstate sale of raw milk. When consumers increasingly want to know where their milk comes from and that it’s safe, why does the FDA choose to put so much energy into these enforcement activities aimed at small farmers?”