Originally published in The Weekly Packet, July 18, 2013
Peninsula farming community faces struggles from within, protest seeks to limit local vendor participation
Four Season Farm’s vendor wagon is back in the center of the Brooksville Farmers Market on Tuesday, July 16. Farm owner Eliot Coleman had placed it outside in the parking lot in previous weeks to protest the presence of Kevin Poland.
by Anne Berleant
Forget raw milk and the unified push by many local farmers to minimize state regulation of its sales.
Infighting among some local Peninsula farmers is, again, flourishing alongside the organic mesclun, goat cheeses and links of pork sausage displayed at farmers’ markets—but the prevailing voices would just like it to stop.
The controversy that began last spring, when a FOAA (Freedom of Access Act) request by Dan Brown’s attorneys uncovered emails sent by Kevin Poland to the state agricultural department, remains an issue, at least for Eliot Coleman of Harborside’s Four Season Farm, who recently tried to oust Poland from the Brooksville Farmers’ Market, prompting a thread of emails forwarded to The Weekly Packet.
In late 2011, Poland alerted state agriculture inspectors to local farm products sold at farmers’ markets that bypassed state regulations for licensing, inspecting and labeling. Brown’s raw milk was one of these, and Brown of Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, who refused to apply for a license, was subsequently brought to court by the department and found guilty on three counts (See The Weekly Packet, May 2, 2013.)
“I just felt that [Poland’s] behavior was so unconscionable,” said Coleman in a recent phone call. “You just have to put it in country terms…you just do not rat out your neighbors.”
After Coleman’s request to Brooksville Farmers’ Market manager Carroll Yorgey that Poland Family Farm be cut from its vendors elicited no response, Coleman parked his produce wagon in the parking lot for two weeks as, he wrote in a letter sent to all market vendors, “a protest against Kevin [Poland]’s participation in the market and [Yorgey’s] apparent inability to take action as market manager and present my objection to other vendors.” Coleman said his wagon would remain there “until the market kicked [Poland] out.”
But the Brooksville vendors did not rise to join Coleman’s protest. “The market is filled with crafters that have no understanding of agriculture, so they voted to keep him in,” Coleman said.
According to Yorgey, Poland is complying with state and Brooksville market guidelines, which include proper licensing and labeling of products.
“My reasoning was that Eliot Coleman’s issue was not a Brooksville Farmers’ market issue, and further, it would have been discrimination to remove any farmer from the market who was following the guidelines of the market,” she wrote in an email response separate from the original thread started by Coleman.
This isn’t the first time that local farmers have protested Poland’s participation in a market setting. Brown and Deborah Evans of Bagaduce Farm in Brooksville asked the Blue Hill Co-op Board to drop Poland’s products at an April 25, 2012 meeting (which it refused), and last spring his pork products were cut from online farmers’ market Farm Drop, after five of the 12 participating farms threatened to pull out unless Poland was ousted.
“I couldn’t open the site back up without a third of my farms,” manager Mary Alice Hurvitt said in a recent phone call. “I had absolutely no choice.”
Hurvitt said she manages Farm Drop as a volunteer; the market itself is owned by all the participating farmers.
“I don’t have a dog in this fight in any way, shape or form,” Hurvitt said. “I miss Kevin [Poland]’s product.”
Poland has his own story to tell.
“The one and only time I’ve ever met Eliot Coleman [was] after I had written the opinion piece [on locally produced food, the farming community and food safety, in The Weekly Packet, May 10, 2012]. He came up to me at the Brooksville farmers’ market and said ‘I’ve been hearing these really bad things about you.’”
According to Poland, when he told Coleman about purchasing a local farm’s meat product that had no list of ingredients, Coleman’s response, in front of witnesses, was “They never should have done that.”
Poland said Coleman’s response changed when he found out the product came from a farm he oversaw, which has since changed management. Coleman disputes Poland’s version of their conversation.
“It’s a question of food safety,” Poland said. “In my mind it’s also immoral.”
In addition, Poland said he never publicly named the farms he whistle-blew to the state, but Coleman’s letter to Brooksville market vendors did, adding a couple Poland never included.
While the action—and dialogue—has mainly circulated within the farming community—one Brooksville market customer, Rebecca Conable, responded to Coleman’s email.
“You don’t like [Poland]? Fine. Don’t invite him to supper. You think he should not have contacted the state about food safety concerns?…Fine. Put up a sign that says people should boycott his farm.”
When contacted by telephone, Conable said Coleman’s actions are similar to the “behind-the-scenes bullying” that got Poland kicked out of Farm Drop.
“The reaction of the farm community [to Poland’s whistle blowing] has been an absolute witch hunt,” Conable said. “For all the talk about local food and supporting local food production, there’s actually quite a lot of division among the farm community. It hurts the whole community.”
“I buy local because of food safety,” she continued. “I want to make sure I’m feeding my family the healthiest food but also clean food. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s clean…As a consumer, I appreciate someone standing up for that.”
The Brooksville Farmers’ Market is the one local market where you can find both Coleman’s and Poland’s farm goods. In Blue Hill, Poland sells at the Saturday market at the fairgrounds, while Coleman sticks to the Friday Local Food Exchange at Mainescape. On the Island, Coleman sells at the Wednesday Deer Isle market (started by Coleman and Four Season Farm co-owner Barbara Damroasch), while Poland sells at the Friday Stonington Market (which has a vendor waiting list). Coleman sells at the Thursday Castine market; Poland at the Thursday Brooklin market.
One local farmer, named in Poland’s original complaint, responded: “Up here on the ridge, we’re all farming (working together to get hay in, etc.) and just wishing for some down time to actually see each other and catch up…Fall’s not too far away. Hopefully some of the ‘ouch’ will have simmered down by then.”
Or, as Conable put it, “It appears to me that farming is a difficult enough business without all this infighting.”