Maine Agriculture Department wields a heavy hand

By Ryan Parker, Special to the BDN
Posted Nov. 29, 2011, at 3:56 p.m.

Anyone curious to know what small, unobtrusive, fiscally responsible government looks like need look no further than Hancock County Superior Court where Maine Department of Agriculture Commissioner Whitcomb recently filed a very telling lawsuit.

This suit is not against the federal government or other outside entity on behalf of Maine people. Rather, Mr. Whitcomb, a Republican appointed and approved by a Republican governor and Legislature with a chorus of campaign promises for the wise use of tax dollars still ringing in the ears of Mainers, has filed a lawsuit against Dan Brown, a small farmer in Blue Hill.

Mr. Brown’s offenses, according to the summons he received, include selling unpasteurized milk without a license at a farmers market in Blue Hill and from the stand at his farm. One might presume, based on the amount of taxpayer dollars being used on this case and lawsuit, that the Department of Agriculture is responding to multiple complaints and an exploding health epidemic caused by Mr. Brown’s farm stand wares.

At the very least, one might assume that even one person complained of being misled since the department’s lawsuit claims that the milk in question wasn’t labeled “not pasteurized.” But Mr. Brown’s customers are happy and the state has not claimed otherwise.

Absent a full-blown outbreak of food borne illness, the department may be acting on behalf of the residents of Maine who have spoken in unified opposition to the idea that a small farm entrepreneur could provide a small, personally connected customer base with a product they need. However, in this case, exactly the opposite is true. Indeed, Blue Hill is one of five towns in Maine to pass, nearly unanimously, the landmark Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance, a move that has spawned similar efforts nationwide.

The ordinance allows people to patronize local farmers for the real, healthful foods they need without interference from state or federal authorities which, unbeknownst to the majority of the population, have been persecuting small farmers and their customers across the nation and here in Maine.

In other words, if a person wants to buy a locally grown and raised food from a farmer down the road, and that person can go and see the farm, know the farmer, understand for him or herself the processes surrounding the creation of that food, then that person doesn’t need the government to be involved. This seems to be in perfect alignment with the rhetoric of the LePage administration.

And yet, Maine taxpayers are funding an inspection regime that pursues one small farmer for nearly a year, including hours worked, reports filed and miles driven to and from farm and farmers market, and a lawsuit involving the Attorney General. Meanwhile, there are no inspections of the food available at the grocery stores across this state. No inspections of the pasteurized milk at the supermarket, milk which has actually caused more deaths than raw milk in the last decade according to the government’s own data.

And raw dairy products are not the only real food being targeted by our so-called small, unobtrusive government. Let’s not forget the direct farmer-to-consumer sale of farm-processed poultry that was the original impetus for the ordinance. While the Maine Department of Agriculture prevents small farmers from processing chickens and turkeys in the safe way it has been done for literally thousands of years and selling or trading them to neighbors and community, Consumer Reports found that over 60 percent of supermarket chickens are contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter. This chicken, by the way, has been through the regulatory regime and is stamped with approval by — you guessed it — both federal and state governments around the country.

Presumably we will soon be learning of the summons issued to executives of Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and the other giants of the agribusiness world which are actually poisoning people. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to figure out how to get to my plate around the tiny, unobtrusive Department of Agriculture that invited itself to my dinner table with a flourish of wisely spent tax dollars.

Ryan Parker is a former staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Currently, he runs a diversified, “beyond organic,” small family farm and writes in Newport. To learn more visit We Are All Farmer Brown on Facebook.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/29/opinion/contributors/maine-agriculture-department-wields-a-heavy-hand/ printed on November 25, 2014