FREEDOM, Maine — A small family farm in Waldo County that sells its produce within a 30-mile radius has to change its name because of a trademark dispute with a multimillion dollar company with greenhouses in three countries.
It’s all in a name, according to Prentice Grassi of Freedom Village Farm, which was started in 2007 and until very recently simply was called Village Farm. Soon, though, Grassi and his wife, Polly Shyka, will have to find yet another name for their five-acre mixed vegetable farm.
Their months-long nomenclature ordeal began shortly before Christmas when they started receiving cease-and-desist letters and emails from attorneys for Village Farms, a company with corporate headquarters in Heathrow, Florida, and Delta, British Columbia.
Village Farms is one of the largest growers of greenhouse tomatoes in North America. Village Farm in Freedom cultivates five acres of mixed vegetables and flowers. The Maine farmers did not think that most people would get the two confused.
“We thought, is this some kind of weird joke?” Grassi recalled. “We understood pretty quickly that it was serious. We were surprised. I think at that point we didn’t imagine it would ultimately amount to much, but we were dismayed by it.”
As the weeks rolled on, however, Grassi discovered that trademark claims amount to a lot. Although he and Shyka decided to go ahead and change their farm’s name to Freedom Village Farm in an effort to be cooperative, about two weeks ago, they received another unwelcome letter from Village Farms. This one notified the couple that the company had filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, demanding the Mainers stop using the Village Farm name even if it has “Freedom” in front of it.
“You’re not talking about reasonable likelihoods of confusion,” Grassi said. “Village Farms, they grow tomatoes and peppers. We grow those, too — the equivalent of three 200-foot rows of tomatoes and sweet peppers. The likelihood of confusion between a farm of their scale and a farm of our scale is practically nonexistent.”
Nevertheless, the Village Farms management decided to take action, suggesting that Grassi and Shyka find another word to put in between “village” and “farm.” The Maine farmers did not like the way “Village Family Farm” or “Village Organic Farm” sounded, and instead chose “Freedom Village Farm.” That didn’t work, Helen Aquino, the director of brand marketing & communication at Village Farms said in a Facebook message sent Monday afternoon.
“We here at Village Farms had proposed a workable solution for Freedom Village Farm that we believed to be fair and acceptable to them, but this has been refused,” she wrote. “This has left us with no other choice now but to protect our mark.”
Grassi said that it is likely his farm came onto the corporation’s radar because it has a fairly robust Internet presence considering its small size. Also, Freedom Village Farm is a supplier to Erin French’s The Lost Kitchen in Freedom village, a restaurant that has had a lot of press attention since opening in the renovated grist mill.
Anthony Pellegrini, an intellectual property lawyer at Rudman Winchell in Bangor who is not involved with this matter, said that the two farms do use similar trademarks and supply a similar product — fresh produce. Because of that, even though in other ways they may be very different, it might not matter in the eyes of the law, he said. If Village Farms, the company that does greenhouse production throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico, established its trademark before Village Farm in Freedom, it can assert its trademark rights. Village Farms has been in business since 1989.
“Junior marks have to give way to the senior mark,” Pellegrini said.
He said Village Farms also has obtained a federal trademark registration, which means its trademark is presumed to be protected around the country. This is the case even though “Village Farm” sounds like a common or even generic name, with a cursory Google search of the phrase turning up many similarly-named farms all over the country. According to Pellegrini, Village Farm in Freedom is allowed to challenge the registration in court, but it has the burden of proving the trademark is too generic to be protectable.
“It’s a very interesting area of the law. There’s a lot of nuance, which unfortunately the general public doesn’t always understand,” Pellegrini said. “You have the human interest analysis. The David versus Goliath. Why is this big corporation picking on this little farm in Maine? But just because it might not seem ‘fair,’ it’s not going to change the law. The law is quite clear about what the parties’ rights are.”
For example, he said if his last name was McDonald, and he wanted to start a hamburger stand and name it after himself, that wouldn’t be allowed under trademark law.
“Though it [doesn’t seem to] make common sense, or gut reaction-sense, the law is designed that if you follow the rules and protect your mark, the little guy who comes along later shouldn’t be able to use it,” Pellegrini said.
Grassi and Shyka initially believed that they would be able to prevail in court with the name “Freedom Village Farm.” However, a lawyer they spoke with at the end of last week told them that was not so. It’s hard to fight a corporate farming company with very deep pockets, the Maine farmers said.
“We don’t really feel we’re getting our day in court,” Grassi said. “But we can’t afford a financial risk, and they don’t have that problem.”
They don’t know exactly when they will need to rename the farm, and they don’t yet know the new name, which may be found through a community naming contest. It has been hard to explain the trademark dispute to their young children, who have said, “but we’re the village farmers.”
“We keep saying we still have our farm,” Grassi said. “It’s the same community-based farm, growing healthy food and taking care of our neighbors. In a sense, it is only a name, and we can move on from it.”