ROCKLAND, Maine — Rockland is one step closer to becoming Maine’s first city to declare food sovereignty after the City Council gave preliminary approval of a proposed local food and community self-governance ordinance .
Before becoming law, the proposed ordinance faces additional municipal scrutiny and a second vote by the council next month.
Eighteen municipalities across Maine have already adopted food sovereignty ordinances, but if successful, Rockland will be the largest community to do so.
Under those ordinances, local food producers are exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food as long as the transactions are between the producers and the customers for home consumption or when the food is sold and consumed at community events such as church suppers.
“This ordinance is really ‘small farm’ focused,” said Jesse Watson, Rockland resident and owner of Midcoast Permaculture Design, who helped craft the ordinance. “By reducing the regulatory burden on new, small farms, it reduces the initial costs for those farmers by allowing them to start up and operate right out of the chute without having to invest in equipment to meet state requirements.”
The focus, Watson said, is on direct sales between the grower and consumer.
“This does not give regulatory exemptions to growers who sell to restaurants or food stores,” he said. “This is about direct, ‘me to thee’ sales [because] a lot of the current regulations are for large scale and industrial food producers.”
The Rockland ordinance, according to Watson, breaks that one-size-fits-all model.
“Those regulations are not appropriate below a certain threshold of production,” he said. “So we have drawn a line in the sand that says if you are able to produce food and sell it directly to the consumer, you qualify for [regulatory] exemptions under this ordinance.”
To help bring the ordinance to a City Council vote, Watson and his fellow food sovereignty advocates turned to Renew Rockland for logistic and organizational support.
“I think it’s great the [ordinance] was passed,” Nathan Davis of Renew Rockland said Tuesday. “I think this is a significant step forward in making Rockland food sovereign.”
The ordinance passed Monday night with a 3-2 vote.
In voting against the proposal, Councilor Larry Pritchett on Tuesday described it as a “solution that does not fit the problem.”
The council, Pritchett said, has always been supportive of local growers and willing to consider options that simplify regulations.
“But asserting the city has virtually unlimited authority to exempt local businesses from any state and/or federal law is an extreme response to address questions about direct sales of locally produced [food],” he said. “This is a fundamentally flawed concept of municipal authority.”
Calls to City Council members Ed Glaser, Valli Geiger, Adam Ackor and Mayor Will Clayton were not immediately returned.
On Tuesday, Rockland City Manager Audra Caler-Bell said she has been directed to research how and if the proposed ordinance fits with existing law.
“Rockland is different from other municipalities that have adopted [food sovereignty] ordinances in that we have a code and charter,” Caler-Bell said Tuesday. “It’s important that we make sure any new ordinance fits in that legal framework.”
Caler-Bell said a copy of the ordinance has been forwarded to the city’s attorney for an opinion.
“The [city] councilors want us to look deeper into the legal ramifications of the proposed ordinance,” she said. “For this ordinance to be successful, it must see how and if it fits into that broader legal framework.”
Supporters of food sovereignty in Maine point to the the state’s constitution and its definition of “home rule,” which allows the movement to go town-by-town.
“In Maine, according to the state constitution, the government of the people devolves to the lowest unit, in our case, the municipality,” Betsy Garrold, acting director of Food for Maine’s Future said in a previous Bangor Daily News interview. “Local municipalities can pass laws and ordinances that govern within the boundaries of their community, and that is why we feel very strongly these food sovereignty ordinances have a very strong legal standing.”
However, in a case that pitted the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry against a Maine dairy farmer in 2014, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the state’s supremacy over cities or towns in regulating food safety.
Davis said he is hopeful proposed legislation such as LR 1193, An Act Regarding Food Sovereignty, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, will address those legal issues.
“My understanding is [Jackson’s] bill addresses home rule with language that supports and encourages unimpeded sales between [food] producers and consumers,” Davis said. “Towns will have the right to regulate their own food.”
Calls to Jackson on Tuesday were not immediately returned.
Last spring, a bill introduced by Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop would have amended the Maine constitution allowing greater local control over food production and sales.
LD 783, A Resolution, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Establish a Right to Food, ultimately died in the Senate.
In an email on Tuesday, Hickman said he is working through his legislative agenda for this session with plans to introduce bills addressing hunger, supporting farms and reducing food waste.
“I am in talks with Sen. Jackson about a bill to recognize food sovereignty in local communities,” Hickman wrote.
The Rockland City Council will vote again on the proposed ordinance at its Feb. 13 meeting, and Davis is cautiously optimistic.
“Small farms and young farmers are a bright spot for Maine’s economy and future,” he said. “Anything that can be done to support and promote the culture of small scale agriculture in Maine is a good thing, [and] food sovereignty is one of those things.”