Late in the evening of July 8, Governor LePage vetoed LD 1282, a bill that would allow Maine farmers to sell up to 20 gallons of unlicensed raw milk, with regulated state testing, at farm stands and farmers’ markets. The next day, the senate failed to override his veto, voting 17-16 in favor of the bill. A two-thirds vote in both chambers is needed to override a governor’s veto.
Before his veto, LePage contacted Penobscot farmer and local food sovereignty advocate Heather Retberg, who had written him that morning.
“At that point, he seemed to be earnestly seeking for a way to sign [LD] 1282,” Retberg said by email, but “mentioned…he felt he needed to address to ‘keep the guys upstairs happy’…and was ‘looking for guidance from us folks’” on his concerns over sales at farmers’ markets.
In LePage’s veto, he wrote that while he supported the “underlying theory” of deregulating small businesses, the government’s “primary role” of protecting public health led him to veto the bill because of the clause allowing sales at farmers’ markets where the “chain of custody” could not be verified.
While he supported “on farm only” direct sales of unlicensed raw milk, where “the consumer would know the farmer who produced the milk,” farmers’ markets sales raised enough health concerns for him to veto the bill.
Retberg’s solution to LePage was to include language in the bill allowing only the farmer or an agent of the farm to sell its milk at farmers’ markets. “It seemed to be a pretty simple thing,” she said. “He reiterated his support for small farms and big farms and said he liked the bill. After that conversation, I was shocked when I learned of the veto.”
In the days leading up to the governor’s veto, local farmers showed concern over lobbying by the dairy industry and Farm Bureau who were opposed to LD 1282, which had easily passed the House and Senate.
“It’s hard to compete with a full-time lobbyist,” said Deborah Evans of Bagaduce Farm in Brooksville. Evans, recently licensed by the state to sell raw milk, said with just one cow, her sales are primarily done to educate consumers.
“We’re selling it because we want people to know about raw milk,” Evans said.
Reactions to the veto and subsequent Senate vote were mixed among local farmers.
Blue Hill farmer Dan Brown, under injunction to cease his sales of unlicensed raw milk, knew that if LD 1282 was signed, he would be able to resume his sales of raw milk.
Found guilty earlier this year of selling raw milk without a license, Brown was ordered to pay $1,000 in civil penalties, and his motion to stay the injunction pending his appeal was ultimately denied.
“[Judge Ann Murray] said she would consider lifting the injunction after the governor made his decision,” Brown said. “I just found out [the failure to pass] about five minutes ago. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Kevin Poland, of Poland Family Farm in Brooklin, said he was “thankful that the governor vetoed [the bill].”
In previous conversations, Poland said he was in favor of direct, on-farm sales of unlicensed raw milk but, like LePage, not at farmers’ markets.
“I’m really glad the governor had the good sense to be in favor of food safety,” said Poland.
The fact that LePage’s veto stated his support for on-farm sales makes it likely that while LD 1282 is dead, the issue of legal unlicensed raw milk sales is not.
Or, as Retberg put it after the veto and senate vote, “Onward! Both houses passed this bill, the governor expressed his support for it…[LD] 1282 wasn’t a ‘home-run,’ [but] it…would have been one good step in the right direction.”