Dan Brown may soon be able to sell raw milk without a license, despite an injunction issued in April by Hancock County Superior Court Judge Ann Murray to stop.
With the passage of LD 1282 by the Senate on June 4 and House the next day, legal sales of small quantities of labeled, unlicensed, untested raw milk is a step closer. The final hurdle is Governor Paul LePage signing the bill into law.
However, that may not be much of a leap. In February, the governor met with representatives of the department of agriculture, Brown and local food sovereignty supporters. In an email from Penobscot farmer Heather Retberg, who attended the meeting, she described LePage as “a good listener [who] agreed with the substance of our arguments…He requested of us concrete ways in which he could help, i.e., which specific rules/laws are onerous to small farms.”
LD 1282 would appear to fit that description, allowing daily sales of less than 20 gallons of raw milk, labeled as raw, untested and unlicensed by the state, to be sold directly from producer to customer.
Brown, who operates Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill with his wife Judy, was found guilty in a summary judgment on three counts brought by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation: selling milk without a milk distributor’s license, operating a food establishment without a license and selling unpasteurized milk without a label identifying it as such.
A second bill that could affect Brown’s case also passed both houses later that same week. LD 1287 would permit “direct sales of farm products between Maine farmers and consumers” and homemade food at “certain events, without being licensed as food establishments.”
But if LePage does sign these bills into law, it may be too late to help Brown.
Judge Murray will hear motions from Brown’s attorneys on June 14 for a stay of her injunction against Brown to cease raw milk sales and to amend her judgment. A civil penalties hearing will be held the same day.
“The plan of action is to assume the governor is not going to sign anything [before June 14],” said Gary Cox, an attorney with the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund who represents Brown.
If LePage signs the bill before Brown’s hearing, Cox said he might still ask Murray to amend the judgment. “We would argue that this new law should mitigate any penalty.”
Cox may call Brooksville farmer Deborah Evans, who was granted a license to sell raw milk on May 22, as a defense witness.
“There’s a lot of factors involved,” said Cox. “It depends on what the judge does and the governor.”
State inspection reports of Evan’s milking facility show the “selective enforcement” by the department of agriculture, Brown said. He cited the lack of a three-bay wash sink at both facilities—required for his license but not for Evans.
Brown is hopeful that the governor will listen to supporters, who have contacted the governor’s office, urging him to sign the bill before Brown’s hearing.
“Who knows what [the governor] is going to do?” said Brown. “If it’s legal, I’m back in business.”
Small farmers tipping the balance?
“When people think of farming in Maine, they picture silos and big equipment, potato, dairy and blueberry farms. But people’s perceptions lag behind the reality,” said John Piotti, of Maine Farmland Trust, at a recent talk in Blue Hill.
Raw milk production in Maine—typically a small-scale operation—has jumped from eight facilities to nearly 60 between 1995 and 2012, according to the Dept. of Agriculture. The most significant jump has occurred in the last five years, when the number of “raw milk plants” has tripled.
Certified organic farmland in Maine has risen around 19 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to the most recent statistics available from the United States Department of Agriculture, from 39,937 acres to 48,984.
More telling is the number of farms, which rose from 319 to 635, highlighting that small-scale farming is on the rise, generating $36,636,000 in 2007.
While the bigger agricultural picture shows a total 1.3 million acres of farmland generating a $1.2 billion impact on the state economy, small-scale farmers have thrown their voices into the legislative ring, regularly attending work sessions and hearings held by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry on bills aimed at helping small-scale farming.
This follows the authoring, by local farmers Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, Deborah Evans of Bagaduce Farm in Brooksvillle and Larissa Curlik of East Blue Hill (with assistance from Bob St.Peter of Sedgwick), of a local food self-governance and sovereignty ordinance, first passed in Sedgwick in 2011, that is being used as a blueprint across the country.
The 11 Maine towns that have now passed such an ordinance—including Blue Hill, Penobscot, Brooksville, Isle Au Haut and Trenton—“are trailblazers in the growing movement in this country,” wrote Peter Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, in testimony to the Maine House Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee as it debated LD 475.
LD 475, a similar, statewide ordinance introduced by Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop and supported by local representatives Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) and Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle), failed 93-43 in the House but was brought back to life in the Senate by Senator Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth). It suffered a narrow 18-17 defeat on May 22.
Since Sedgwick passed the food sovereignty ordinance in 2011, at least 10 towns from Vermont to California have passed similar ordinances, and more are working on them.
“It’s important to note, when the first local food ordinances passed in Sedgwick, Penobscot and Blue Hill, we weren’t seeking to join a movement, or to start one, necessarily,” said Retberg. “We intended to protect what made sense in our own communities. Going to the most local level of governance, our town meeting, made the most sense.”