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by Faith DeAmbrose
With few exceptions, the components for an average meal travel between 1,500 to 2,500 miles before landing on a dining room table. These components, from around the world and across the United States, are subject to regulations that may add to their cost. Small, local, food producers say they are increasingly subject to these same regulations. To mitigate the impact of these regulations, area farmers say, they have taken matters into their own hands; their efforts will be considered by four towns in the Penobscot Bay Press coverage area through the annual town meeting process.
So far, since last November, the boards of selectmen in the towns of Blue Hill, Brooksville, Sedgwick and Penobscot have accepted a common document titled “Local Food and Community Self-governance Ordinance” and have agreed to put that document in front of voters. The ordinance, which was created by Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, Deborah Evans of Bagaduce Farm in Brooksville and Larissa Curlik of East Blue Hill (with assistance from Bob St. Peter of Sedgwick) was brought to the individual towns by a group of local farmers. During the last few months many of the towns have held, or will hold, informational meetings on the subject.
The purpose of the ordinance, according to its text, is designed to do six things: (1) Provide citizens with unimpeded access to local food; (2) Enhance the local economy by promoting the production and purchase of local agricultural products; (3) Protect access to farmers’ markets, roadside stands, farm-based sales and direct producer-to-patron sales; (4) Support the economic viability of local food producers and processors; (5) Preserve community social events where local foods are served or sold; and (6) Preserve local knowledge and traditional food ways.
The primary goal of the ordinance is to exempt local farm products from licensure and inspection if the products are only going to be sold by the producer directly to a willing consumer.
For the drafters of the ordinance, the issue hits close to home, but is larger than that, explained Penobscot’s Quill’s End farm co-owner Heather Retberg. The issue is about the ability of a local farmer to continue to engage in traditional farming practices without costly state and federal regulations, such as creating a special kitchen or processing facility. Retberg explained the problems she and her husband, Phil, have faced over the past few years as they have tried to make a living farming. She said because of repeated rule changes at the federal and state levels, getting products to market have become almost cost-prohibitive. The Retbergs are concerned that the regulatory system has the potential to drive farmers out of business.
The ordinance has gotten the attention of Blue Hill’s Halcyon Grange, whose members adopted a resolution in early February in support of it. According to the resolution, the members of the grange find that “the basis of human sustenance rests on the ability of all people to save seed, grow, process, consume and exchange food and farm products…” and therefore they stand “on our rights under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and reject such Federal and State decrees, statutes, regulations or corporate practices that threaten our basic human right(s)”as listed above.
The ordinance, according to its drafters, rests on: (1) The Declaration of Independence, which declares that governments are instituted to secure peoples’ rights, and that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed; (2) Article I, §2 of the Maine Constitution, which declares: “all power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit, [and that] they have therefore an unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government and to alter, reform, or totally change the same when their safety and happiness require it”; (3) §3001 of Title 30-A of the Maine Revised Statutes, which grants municipalities all powers necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents; and (4) §211 of Title 7 of the Maine Revised Statutes, which states: “it is the policy of the State to encourage food self-sufficiency for the State.”
A perceived problem with enforceability and the potential for challenges from state and federal agencies, especially the Department of Agriculture, has been a discussion point for a number of towns, including Blue Hill and Brooksville. In Brooksville, the ordinance has been modified to state that in the event of a legal challenge it would be up to the townspeople to come together and decide how to move forward. In Blue Hill, which will not hold its town meeting until early April, the board of selectmen have discussed this issue and find that enforcement could be problematic; they would like the authors to modify the section regarding enforceability to hold the town harmless in the event of a legal challenge.
The circulation of the ordinances across the greater Blue Hill Peninsula has attracted the interest of District 36 Representative Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, who has introduced two pieces of agriculture-based legislation, similar in focus. The first, LD 336, “An Act Regarding the Sale of Raw Milk” would exempt the sale of raw milk from licensing requirements, providing it is on the premise of the seller.
The second, LD 330, “An Act to Exempt Farm Food Products and Homemade Food Offered for Sale or for Consumption at Certain Events from Certain License Requirements,” would basically solidify the local foods ordinance in state statute, if successful. According to Kumiega, the issue is important to his constituents, including those in Deer Isle and Stonington who participate, along with many farmers from across the Blue Hill Peninsula, in the Stonington Farmers’ Market, one of the most successful markets in the state, according to the Downeast Business Alliance.
According to Kumiega, he became aware of this issue while campaigning. “From a consumers’ point of view, people told me they want to buy from their neighbors and from small farms,” he said, noting that he did not have any trouble finding co-sponsors for the bill. Kumiega said his bills should come to a public hearing sometime in late February and that he would keep the public informed in case local farmers or residents wanted to speak at the hearing.