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by Anne Berleant
“Go to Augusta. It makes a difference,” advised State Representative Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) to a roomful of small-scale farm supporters gathered for a Local Food RULES meeting at town hall on February 2.
Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot did just that when she met with Governor LePage, his policy advisor Carly McLean, and Agricultural Commissioner Walter Whitcomb on January 31 in Augusta.
Retberg said that LePage agreed “with the substance of our arguments” for direct farm-to-consumer sales to be regulated differently than large-scale commodity farm sales.
“The governor was sympathetic to the small-scale farmer,” Retberg said. “The Department of Agriculture was not.”
However, she said that Whitcomb “let me know the governor was in favor of what we were saying,” even if the department would not support the food sovereignty ordinance passed in 2011 by Blue Hill and three other Hancock County towns—on grounds of food safety.
LePage “wants to promote small-scale and commodity farmers,” Retberg said. “He requested concrete ways in which he could help,” such as identifying which rules or laws present a hardship to small farms.
Sixteen bills related to food sovereignty and sustainability have been introduced in the current legislative session, ranging from GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling to raw milk to allowing facility sharing for poultry processing.
State Representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) stated that the Department of Agriculture brought its lawsuit against Blue Hill farmer Dan Brown “without any legislative discussion” and questioned its authority to “change what was in practice on their own.”
That current practice was to allow farmers to sell their products directly to customers without strict enforcement of guidelines designed for large dairy farms, according to Brown, but that changed when “the attorney general got involved.”
Brown said documents obtained through the Freedom of Access Act made clear that “the feds came in and said [to Maine Department of Agriculture], if you don’t do something about the raw milk, we’re going to take away your license to sell meat.”
Brown is charged with three counts: selling milk or milk products without a license; selling raw milk not labeled as not pasteurized; and operating a food establishment without a license.
An attendee asked whether the home rule provision [in the Maine Constitution] named in the food sovereignty ordinance is being used to support Brown’s case.
“It’s a taboo subject,” said Brown. “I have a really hard time getting attorneys [on both sides] to acknowledge the ordinance exists.”
One of Brown’s attorneys, Gary Cox of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, said in a January 21 phone call that the local ordinance preempts state regulations because of the home rule provision—and the ordinance is what separates Brown’s case from other raw milk cases nationwide.
Besides Blue Hill, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Trenton in Hancock County, a local food sovereignty ordinance has been enacted in four other Maine towns in Knox, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties.
Brooksville has placed the ordinance on its warrant for vote at town meeting on March 5.
“If we do nothing, I really don’t think small-scale, diversified farming and/or entry level farming will be able to grow, let alone thrive,” Retberg said.