ELLSWORTH, Maine — A growing number of farmers are coming out against the “local food sovereignty” movement as the issue leaves town halls and hits Augusta.
Proponents of the movement, which aims to wrest authority over local food regulations from the state, have seen initial victories in several Maine towns. But the question of who should control regulation of local food is divisive among farmers.
According to one farmer, many opponents of local food rules are cautious to take a public stand, for fear of incurring retribution from vocal supporters of local food sovereignty.
Nine Maine towns — Brooksville, Sedgwick, Penobscot, Blue Hill, Trenton, Hope, Plymouth, Livermore and Appleton — have passed ordinances allowing food producers and processors to sell their goods directly to consumers without state or federal oversight, exempting them from licensing and inspection laws.
The ordinances pit towns against the state government, which has claimed the local rules hold no legal weight because state law trumps local ordinances.
LD 475 — An Act to Increase Food Sovereignty in Local Communities — would have dealt a crushing blow to that argument, stating in part that “nothing in state law shall be construed as pre-empting [sic] the right of local government to regulate food systems via local ordinance.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, received a 10-2 vote of “ought not to pass” by the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry on April 11. Hickman and Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, were the only committee members to vote for the bill.
Rep. James Dill, D-Old Town, chairman of the committee, said members voted against the bill for concerns about food safety and to avoid setting the precedent that towns could simply opt out of state laws they didn’t agree with. He also said some committee members feared passage of the bill would invite federal inspectors to “take over” regulation of Maine’s food industries.
Though his bill didn’t pass muster at the committee level, Hickman said he still hopes to bring it to the floor of the Legislature in one form or another.
Proponents of local food sovereignty — a group composed mostly of small-scale farmers and buy-local enthusiasts — say state and federal regulations are too onerous for small producers.
Deborah Evans operates Bagaduce Farm in Brooksville with a partner, Laura Livingston. They raise pigs for pork and also have donkeys, cows and guinea fowl. Evans said the regulations imposed on food producers are inappropriate for “the smallest of small farms.” For example, she said that to butcher poultry at her farm, she’d have to invest tens of thousands of dollars in an outbuilding, made with stainless steel, with access to hot and cold running water.
“I can’t butcher two ducks, and send one home with Laura for helping me, because that bird left the property and was not consumed here. That’s scale inappropriate,” she said.
Evans said there are other safe ways to butcher and clean small numbers of birds without the infrastructure necessary for a large commercial operation. But the state wouldn’t approve. Those regulations keep small farms out, her partner said.
“If you’re only going to do 50 birds, it doesn’t make sense to dump $40,000 into a facility. You’d only make a couple hundred dollars,” Livingston said.
Supporters also say that opting out of state and federal regulations would boost local economies by removing a barrier for entry into local food markets, thus offering more choices to consumers.
“I believe in personal responsibility,” said Hickman, who is also an organic farmer. “The state has no right to decide what food I buy. I want to be able to decide that, whether it’s raw milk, cheese, a pie, a pheasant, a bowl of gumbo or a cake. I should be able to decide who to buy it from.”
But not every farmer supports the local food rules. Kevin Poland has been farming in Brooklin since the late ‘70s. He opposes the push against state licensing and inspection and he has paid the price.
Poland, an organic pork and produce farmer, pointed to documented incidents last year where his willingness to blow the whistle on farmers who weren’t following state rules has pitted him against other farmers.
In April 2012, Poland faced off against activists in the local food sovereignty movement who tried to convince the Blue Hill Co-Op to stop carrying his pork products because he had called the state to report area farmers he thought were violating state law.
According to meeting minutes posted online, one of those farmers was Dan Brown, a Blue Hill dairy owner who is being sued by the state for selling unlabeled, unpasteurized, unlicensed “raw” milk. He’s using Blue Hill’s local food ordinance as a defense.
A month later, Poland’s stance in support of state law cost him his participation in a local food program, FarmDrop.org.
Poland was a member of the group, which delivered local food to customers, but after other farmers heard about Poland calling the state to report practices he thought were illegal, his farm was dropped from the program.
Mary Alice Hurvitt manages FarmDrop and confirmed on April 15 that Poland was kicked out of the program because about one-third of the farmers involved threatened to drop out if he was allowed to take part.
Poland said many farmers are against the adoption of food sovereignty ordinances but are afraid to speak up because of what he sees as the mob mentality of the local food rules crowd.
“After watching the tactics of the people in favor of this, other farmers won’t say anything,” he said recently.
Poland said he thinks local food sovereignty, if allowed to stand, will eventually hurt the entire local food movement. All it will take is someone getting sick from unlicensed, uninspected food, he said.
“Common sense tells people that food should be inspected,” he said. “I want to see people continue to buy local food, but it’s only common sense to realize that somewhere down the line, something is going to happen. When it does, and people realize that nothing’s being inspected, it’s going to ruin the local food thing.”
In testimony submitted before the Agriculture Committee, Clare Derosiers of Sunnyside Family Farm in Linneus also said LD 475 would hurt farmers. Derosiers raises, slaughters and sells all-natural chicken throughout the state.
She wrote that the effect of the legislation would be unsafe poultry being sold by uneducated producers.
“It is dangerous to assume small farmers and custom meat processors are more trustworthy than the average person,” she wrote. ”Licensing and annual inspection provide a measure of accountability that helps to ensure food processors provide food that is safe for consumers.”
Hickman said the dire predictions of unsafe food are “too doomsday-ish.” People should be empowered to make their own decisions about what they eat, he said. And buying directly from a farmer, there is plenty of opportunity to determine whether food is safe.
“People have senses,” he said. “We can see things. We know if something is good or bad when we smell it; when we cook it we can see that it still tastes off or smells bad. People are informed, but we don’t give ourselves enough credit.”
“If you’re afraid people are going to get sick and die, well, that happens now,” he said. “There’s no guarantee on food, even when it’s licensed and inspected.”
Joan Gibson, a cattle farmer and raw milk producer in Levant, disagrees. Gibson and her husband, Brian Call, operate the 200-year-old Milky Way Farm, and both say local food rules mean less safety for consumers.
Gibson has been contacting other licensed dairy producers in the state with an effort to get them to lobby against local food sovereignty.
“As a consumer, my question is, how do I know I’m being protected, that my health isn’t being put at risk?” she said Tuesday. If not managed properly, she said, raw milk can carry salmonella, tuberculosis and harmful bacteria especially dangerous to children and the elderly. She said that without lab testing, unsafe milk can look, smell and taste the same as safe milk.
Gibson doesn’t pull any punches. She says that what supporters of local food sovereignty want isn’t more choice for consumers and a better market for local products; it’s anarchy.
“Bullying, irrationality, lack of democratic principles, disregard for the law, disregard for public safety and disregard for legitimate businesses and long and well-standing farmers in our local Maine communities is the modus operandi of these folks,” she wrote in an email to other dairy owners.
Many supporters of local food rules feel safe in purchasing local products because of the relationship they have with the farmers. They know the people who are making their food, and for many, that’s reassuring. After all, they say, local farmers will quickly go out of business if they sell food that makes customers sick.
“That’s ignorant,” Gibson said. “Food safety isn’t about what a great relationship you have with your farmer. It’s about biology.”
Hickman’s bill is not the only one that aims to deregulate entirely certain kinds of economic exchanges between food producers and consumers.
Another bill, LD 1282, would allow the production and sale of up to 20 gallons per day of uninspected raw milk from unlicensed producers, as long as they sold it from their home, farm stand or farmers market. LD 1287 would allow people producing food in their homes to sell directly to consumers without being licensed as food establishments.
Neither of those bills has yet been scheduled for public hearings.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.