PENOBSCOT, Maine — Two small towns have passed ordinances that would make small-scale farmers exempt from state and federal regulations if they sell foods they process directly to consumers.
At town meetings this month, residents in the Hancock County towns of Sedgwick and Penobscot passed ordinances that supporters say will help small-scale farming and food processing operations. A state lawmaker is proposing a state law that would give similar exemptions.
Local communities should have the right to decide for themselves on rules over small farms that process food — ranging from chickens to cheese to jars of jam — that is sold to people in their own area, said Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, which sells farm-raised beef, pork and lamb, as well as eggs.
“What the ordinance does is put the rule of law behind the towns,” Retberg said. “We feel like if you’re growing food by the community and for the community, it’s up to the community to decide how to govern that food system.”
Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb said the attorney general’s office has written an opinion that says the local ordinances are trumped by state and federal laws and are therefore invalid.
Whitcomb, a dairy farmer, sympathizes with small-scale farmers and food processors, but said regulatory oversight is critical when it comes to food safety. Inspectors in the past have found people working on outboard motors or changing their baby’s diapers on food-preparation surfaces, he said.
“They’re suggesting what would amount to a huge relaxation of our laws,” he said.
There are hundreds of small farms in Maine that grow vegetables, cattle, pigs, sheep and other food items that are typically sold to people who live near those farms. Many farmers make foods such as jams, cheese and pies in their kitchens and then sell them out of their home stores or farm stands.
Public hearings are being held next week in Augusta on several legislative bills that would relax or streamline laws regarding farm food production, slaughterhouses and the sale of raw milk.
Bob St. Peter, who operates Saving Seeds Farm in Sedgwick, said small farms could use a streamlined regulatory system to be able to grow.
“We aren’t saying all regulation is bad. We’re saying we need certain exemptions so we can grow and preserve the tradition of selling food to our neighbors without having to fill out regulatory forms and having our strawberry jam recipe tested for $10,” he said.
The new Penobscot ordinance won’t change how Retberg and her husband deal with their existing line of products, since they use a federally certified facility to butcher their cows, pigs and sheep.
But they plan to start processing chickens on their farm, something they’d be forbidden from doing under existing state regulations without constructing a separate chicken-processing building, she said. She wonders if state agricultural officials will show up at her door and tell her to stop.