News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, May 16, 2013
Judge postpones penalties hearing in “Farmer Brown” case
Food sovereignty bill LD 475 wilts on House floor

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by Anne Berleant

Farmer Dan Brown, scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, May 16, for a hearing on civil penalties in the suit filed against him by the Department of Agriculture, will have to wait. Hancock County Superior Court Judge Ann Murray postponed the hearing “for at least a month,” Brown wrote in a widely circulated email on May 14.

The judge had agreed to hear arguments at that hearing from Brown’s attorneys on a motion to lift the injunction against Brown pending his appeal. With the hearing postponed, the injunction stopping Brown from selling unlicensed farm products remains in place.

Murray granted the department’s motion for summary judgment against Brown on three counts in a decision released May 2.

While Brown waits for a new hearing date, a handful of proposed bills geared toward promoting small-scale farming, including uninspected raw milk sales, are winding their way through the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to the House floor of the 126th Maine Legislature.

Food sovereignty, poultry and raw milk

LD 475, which sought to remove the state’s ability to preempt local government’s right “to regulate food systems via local ordinance,” was voted down on the House floor on May 15.

The final vote in the House was 93-49 against. “That said,” wrote Brooksville farmer Deborah Evans in an email sent directly after the vote, “[The vote] means that there is strong support for a ‘food sovereignty concept bill’ even in its first presentation before the Legislature.”

Its 8-5 unfavorable vote from the Committee for Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on April 11 was the committee’s second vote on the bill, “which created a stronger minority,” wrote its sponsor Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop) in a recent email. Three committee members had changed their vote, after the bill’s language was amended, Hickman wrote, because “they weren’t fully aware what the amendment achieved before they voted on it.”

Three additional bills will soon be voted on:

LD 1282, which seeks to lift state inspection and licensing requirements to home- or farm-based raw milk and raw milk products, received a divided committee vote. Committee reports are due by May 24; a divided report will bring the bill to the House floor for possible amendments before the House votes to pass or not pass.

Two bills that received “ought to pass” reports relate to small-scale poultry farming: LD 218, sponsored by Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) and co-sponsored by Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville), exempts farms that slaughter fewer than 1,000 birds from state inspection; and LD 259, which allows a poultry slaughterhouse to slaughter poultry from other farms. They will now move to the House floor for vote.

Another bill sponsored by Hickman, LD 1287, seeks to allow direct sales of farm food and food products at farms and farmer markets without requiring state inspection or licenses. It was given an “ought to pass” recommendation by the committee after amendments to exempt fluid milk and low-acid canned goods, and for products to be labeled as exempt from licensing requirements. Kumiega and Chapman are among the bills co-sponsors. This bill now moves to the House floor for voting.

Penobscot farmer Heather Retberg was present at the work session that resulted in the committee vote on LD 1287. “What was great was it was the first time since I’ve been there that the committee was the one saying this is what we want the law to look like to the [state] department [of agriculture]. This was democracy happening. It was really exciting. But the details are really unclear.”

How a bill is passed

After a committee issues its report on a bill, it goes to the House floor. Bills with a divided or “ought not to pass” report are open to amendments by members of the House before it is voted on. Bills given an “ought to pass” committee report are voted in the House without the chance for amendments.

When the House passes a bill, it goes to the Senate chamber. If amended there, it returns to the House for approval of the bill as amended, before returning back to the Senate for vote. If the Senate vote is favorable, the bill is sent to the Governor, who has 10 days in which to sign or veto the bill.

The deadline for all committee reports for the current session of the Legislature is May 24. The session adjourns June 19.