Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 23, 2011
Local foods dispute thrusts Blue Hill farmer into national spotlight
Brown supporters rally at Blue Hill town hall
by Jonathan Thomas
“Who is Farmer Brown?” called out speaker and family farmer Heather Retberg of Penobscot’s Quills End Farm, several times at the end of her presentation.
“We are Farmer Brown,” was the response, each time louder, by the nearly 200 people who formed an arc around the steps of the Blue Hill Town Hall at a rally on the afternoon of November 18.
The real ‘Farmer Brown,’ who is Dan Brown of the Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, has been sued by the state on three charges, including selling milk without a license.
The suit conflicts with a local food ordinance that passed in Blue Hill earlier this year.
The conflict has drawn the notice of the Associated Press, whose national story ran on the CBS News Web site under the headline “Maine farmer caught in local-state permit conflict.” News outlets that picked up the AP’s November 16 story include The Republic of Columbus, Ind., and the television station (and CBS affiliate) WKRG of Mobile, Ala., both of which ran the story on their Web sites.
The rally, organized in part by farmer Bob St. Peter of Sedgwick, was held to support Brown and to ask the state to withdraw the suit.
Brown told the crowd that selling the extra milk his one cow produces from his roadside farm stand is not illegal. He cited Title 7 M.R.S. Section 2955, which reads in part, “No license shall be required of any person who produces or sells milk for consumption only on the premises of the producer or seller.”
Brown said when he sold his milk at farmers’ markets, state officials told him that he needs a license for that, but could sell from his farm without one.
Brown insists that he is a farmer and not a milk distributor and that therefore the rules, as he understood them, have changed.
The state’s seven-page complaint makes no references to Section 2955, but asserts that Brown is a milk distributor, using the statutory definition found in Section 2900(8), which says, “‘Milk distributor’ means any person who offers for sale or sells to another person any milk or milk products in their final form.”
The complaint then asserts that Brown is in violation of Section 2908-A, subsection 1, which states in part, “…A firm, person, corporation or society may not sell milk or milk products in the State without the license or permits provided in sections 2901-C and 2902-A….”
In his brief remarks to the crowd, Brown did not refer to other counts in the complaint, which include selling “unpasteurized milk in a container not labeled as ‘Not Pasteurized’ in violation of 7 M.R.S. Section 2902-B.”
Also, Brown was cited for violating 22 M.R.S. Section 2167, operating a food establishment without a license. This count has to do with the processed foods Brown sells, such as dilly beans and other items made from foods grown or raised on his farm.
The complaint cited the results of a July test done by the state’s laboratory that found “milk and cottage cheese samples, in particular, had bacteria counts ten to fifteen times greater than allowable limits.”
Brown told the crowd the first he heard of problems with his milk was when he heard Maine Agriculture Secretary Walter Whitcomb talk about them on the radio a couple of days before. “If I’ve got problems with my milk, why didn’t they tell me in July? I would have been more than happy to do something about it. There has never been any indication that there was a problem with my milk. My customers have never said anything to me.”
Emily Herman told the crowd she has been buying Brown’s milk and butter for at least four years and never had any problems. “Why should the state tell me I don’t have the right to choose what to eat and feed my children?” she asked. “It offends me to have my tax dollars go to sue Dan Brown.”
Retberg spoke about the economic and political issues involved in the Brown case. Retberg had a role in drafting the local food sovereignty ordinance that was enacted in Blue Hill and four other towns earlier this year.
Retberg, as part of the group, met with Whitcomb last winter prior to his confirmation as agricultural commissioner. She said at the time Whitcomb likened their concerns to those of his grandfather, a small farmer who wanted to grow and sell without state or federal intervention in his own community.
Retberg said now that Whitcomb has become commissioner, he threatens “all of us” as he sues Brown.
She said the current system works and the new town ordinance has codified it into law.
Retberg asked what “the licensure and inspection process [does] to ensure food safety?” She described it as a mandated major expense in building and equipment with no requirements for education and training.
“If there is a doubt that small farms selling to neighbors can produce safe foods, mandate education,” she said. “Not expense.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are pushing the state, Retberg said. She likened these agencies to the fabled camel that puts its nose inside a tent and gradually takes over and forces out the herdsman.
“Commissioner Whitcomb readily admits that they are under intense pressure from the FDA and are being watched closely as these events unfold,” she said.
St. Peter and other speakers also took aim at what they described as the increasing power of large commercial agricultural interests.
In an interview before the rally, farmer Stuart White of Winterport said he was driven out of the dairy business in 1972 because of non-compliance with regulations. He said he continues to raise pigs, chickens, and vegetables.
Allyn Beecher, a wood-turner from Monroe, said he was at the rally as a consumer who is “not interested in buying the dead milk from the supermarket.” He said he has to “drive miles” to get the raw milk he wants because there are only 62 raw milk dealers in the state. Beecher said he pushed for the farm and garden ordinance that failed at the state level.
State Representative Walter Kumiega (D—Deer Isle) said it’s “very disturbing” if state officials never told Brown about bacteria in his milk. Kumiega described legislation he sponsored at the state level. The bill that came closest to passing would have changed regulations relating to the sale of raw milk and would have at least helped Brown’s situation.
State Representative Ralph Chapman (D— Brooksville) said he is proud of the local citizens who are standing up to Augusta with their local ordinances. Both representatives spoke of continuing their legislative efforts in the next legislature.
Neil Davis, Sedgwick’s first selectman, said his town will write to Commissioner Whitcomb and Governor LePage. The letters will urge those officials to withdraw the lawsuit, he said. Davis called the lawsuit “ill-advised and a waste of money.” Sedgwick was one of the towns to pass the ordinance at its last town meeting.
The Hancock County Democratic Committee also weighed in on the matter. Brooklin’s Hendrik Gideonse, on behalf of committee chairman John Knutson, read a statement expressing support and solidarity with the county’s farmers.
The statement also asked the Blue Hill selectmen, who were meeting in the town hall during the rally, to ask the state to withdraw the suit. During the selectmen’s meeting, the board voted to write letters to the DOA, but did not specify the exact content. The board next meets on Friday, November 25, at 1:05 p.m. at the town hall. Those wishing to attend will need to use the town hall side door.
Not all local farmers agree with Brown. Bob Bowen of Sunset Acres Farm in Brooksville called The Weekly Packet before the rally.
Bowen said state inspections are necessary and he cited restaurants and occupations such as plumbing as examples. “Nothing is closer to home than what you put in your mouth,” he said.
Bowen said he runs an inspected goat dairy, that inspections can catch small problems before they become big ones, and that there is no way to know about them without testing. He said the $35 license fee pays for inspections and that the agent comes to pick up the samples for free.
Bowen said a farmer’s liability insurance is not likely to provide protection against a claim if the farmer is violating state laws and regulations.