Raw milk, poultry and produce: Bills easing small-farm oversight clear big legislative hurdle

Posted May 08, 2013, at 1:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Small-farm advocates in Augusta on Tuesday celebrated a key political victory after a legislative committee gave the green light to several bills that would relax state oversight and open local markets to unlicensed farmers and raw milk producers.

Bob St. Peter, a Sedgwick farmer and board member of the nonprofit Food For Maine’s Future, hailed “the magnitude of the shift that just happened here.”

The Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation voted that two key bills — LD 1282 and LD 1287 — ought to pass when they are taken up by the full Legislature.

The votes were seen by small farmers as vindication for what they’ve been arguing for years: that the state facility requirements for licensing and inspection are cost-prohibitive for the smallest homestead operations and that laws must be made “scale-appropriate,” with different rules for small farms selling to their neighbors and large farms selling to the retail and interstate market.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, a proponent of the relaxed regulations, summarized the argument by explaining operations at his own farm: Like most unlicensed raw milk producers, he said, he has running hot water, access to sterilization techniques and home-test kits to ensure the milk is free of harmful pathogens.

But he doesn’t have, and can’t afford, the standalone facility with concrete floors, triple-basin sinks and stainless steel equipment required by state law.

“For me, having a separate room and facility, on my farm, has not been necessary for a clean product,” he said.

Raw milk and ‘face-to-face’ sales

LD 1282, as amended, would allow unlicensed farmers whose facilities are not under inspection to sell up to 20 gallons of raw milk per day directly to consumers, so long as the product was clearly labeled.

The bill would require raw milk products to be tested regularly by the state’s Department of Agriculture, though the exact mechanism of that testing and what steps the department could take in the event of a bad testing result are yet to be determined.

The department will need to draft proposed rules and bring them before the committee, said Ron Dyer, director of quality and assurance for the department.

“We didn’t think [the vote] was going to go this way, but that’s OK,” Dyer said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of decisions that still need to be made.”

LD 1287 deregulates face-to-face sales of farm food products and homemade food from unlicensed farmers and food producers.

If the bill passes in the State House, farmers and home kitchen operators would be able to sell their goods directly to consumers without fear of coming under fire from the state for operating without a license. Unlicensed food producers would still be prohibited from selling wholesale to restaurants or retail markets.

The bill, as passed by the committee, incorporated several amendments proposed by Dyer that exclude “potentially hazardous foods” such as meat, soy products, fish and low-acid canned foods. The amendment also requires labeling that indicates the farm foods or products are exempt from licensing and inspection. The label also would include the name, address and phone number of the farmer or producer.

The committee also voted “ought to pass” on several bills aimed at Maine’s poultry industry. LD 218 exempts farmers who grow and slaughter fewer than 1,000 birds annually from state inspection and licensure, as long as they sell the poultry from the farm or deliver to the consumer’s home. LD 259 would allow the owners of slaughterhouses to rent their facilities to other farmers. LD 836 establishes a legal mechanism for the operation of mobile poultry slaughtering facilities.

The committee voted that a bill prohibiting the slaughter of horses ought not to pass.

A big day for small farms

The affirmative vote on the raw milk bill was an emotional moment for small-farm advocates, who are still bruised from a recent court ruling in Hancock County in which Justice Ann Murray ruled that Dan Brown, a Blue Hill farmer, violated state law by selling unlabeled, unlicensed raw milk.

Brown had sought protection under Blue Hill’s local food ordinance, which he said exempted him from state oversight, but Murray ruled the ordinance couldn’t allow for sales barred by the state. Brown said the decision means his farm will go out of business.

On Tuesday, about 30 farmers attended hearings on LD 1282 and 1287. To show their solidarity, many wore shirts that stated: “I am Farmer Brown.”

“I’m happy, I love this decision,” Brown said after the nearly eight-hour committee meeting. “If this passes in the Legislature, I can reopen my farm the next day.”

The bills, particularly the raw milk bill, did face criticism from some committee members, farmers and industry groups.

“We don’t want to see a system where you have two different sets of rules depending on size, because the concerns about food safety are the same regardless,” said Julie Marie Bickford of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.

Maine is one of 30 states to allow the sale of raw milk, and one of only 12 to allow its retail sale. Bickford said that should a bad batch of milk come out of an unlicensed dairy, it would affect the entire industry.

“Minimum licensing and inspection are important to maintain the integrity and safety of the product with the public,” she said.

Other critics said the state’s licensed milk producers are already feeling the crunch from insurance companies, who are raising their rates for liability because of perceived volatility in Maine’s dairy market thanks to the presence of raw milk, which the FDA sees as unsafe.

Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said that the bill’s passage isn’t “make or break” for farmers with only one or two cows, but that it could spell disaster for the state’s large dairy producers, whether they sell raw milk or not.

“The farmers in my district that I talked to, and I have three who produce raw milk, they want these standards to stay in place,” he said. “This will break the 50- or 100-cow farms if we pass this and they end up shutting down because they can no longer afford insurance.”

Municipal effects

For the nine Maine towns that have passed “local food sovereignty” ordinances, which exempt food producers from state oversight when they engage in face-to-face sales, the passage of LD 1282 and 1287 would mean their ordinances stand on firmer legal ground.

Today, the state argues that its rules on food inspection and licensing pre-empt local ordinance, and the ruling in Dan Brown’s case seems to bolster that argument. If the bills approved by the agriculture committee pass, however, many of the transactions described in the local food rules would become legal statewide as a matter of course — regardless of whether a town had adopted local food sovereignty.

Still, some products — the meat, dairy, soy, eggs, fish and low-acid canned foods exempted from LD 1287 — would be products non grata under state rules. So a turf war between the state and ordinance-touting municipalities over the sale of those products would still be possible.

Many of the farmers who spoke during Tuesday’s hearings admitted to selling “criminal” products without a license and said that practice wouldn’t end, regardless of whether the state allowed it. They say they know their food is safe because their families and neighbors have eaten their homestead products for years.

“This bill would make it so that we’re not criminals, and prevent me from having to look over my shoulder to see whether the state is coming to take the food away from my children,” St. Peter said.

“If we have to go underground with food, we don’t care,” said G.W. Martin, a sixth-generation farmer from Montville who sells farm goods without a license. “We can either stay in Montville or move north, because I know darn well that the further north I move, the less I have to worry about any darn government telling me I can’t milk my cow.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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