There was a time when all food exchange in Maine took place at the local, neighbor-to-neighbor level, free of regulations and government licensing.
But over the years that changed with the advent of food safety laws and inspections.
Proponents of food sovereignty in Maine hope a new law, based on exchanging locally produced and grown food, will bring back some of that community-based commerce.
On June 16 Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 725, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, June 16, legitimizing the authority of towns and communities to enact ordinances regulating local food distribution free from state regulatory control.
“This is huge,” said Heather Retberg, who has helped craft ordinance language. “Historically this is how many people have always exchanged food, especially in rural areas.”
Under the new law, any town or municipality in Maine may now adopt an ordinance allowing food producers to sell their products directly to consumers free from state regulations or licenses.
“This law and the ordinance are not intended to create a retail market that simply circumvents the rules of food safety,” Richard Loring King, Maine food sovereignty advocate, said. “It’s to rejuvenate traditional local foodways where communities provided for themselves in an atmosphere of trust, not unlike having friends over to share a meal.”
For a great many of Maine’s rural small farmers and poultry producers who operate out of roadside stand or directly from their farms, the new law does not change how they do business, as they are already free from state inspections.
The real changes involve those who sell meat or dairy products, Retberg said, which are highly regulated by the state.
“These are the frontline foods in the food sovereignty movement,” she said. “Since the law was passed, these are the farmers we are hearing from.”
Under Maine food safety laws, anyone who wants to raise and sell meat — such as beef, lambs, pork or goats — must have the animals butchered and processed in a state-certified facility.
For many livestock growers in Maine, Retberg said, this means driving the animals long distances to slaughter.
In the case of dairy products — milk, cheese or yogurts, for example — producers must invest large amounts of money to build their own state-approved facility or spend money contracting production out.
Now, thanks to LD 725, if a town or municipality creates and adopts an ordinance, those meat and dairy producers are free to process their food on site — as long as it is for direct sale to customers.
More importantly, the state can’t penalize the producers for doing so.
At least for now.
“The department is in consultation with state and federal officials to determine the broad legal implications resulting from the bill’s passage,” John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said. “And how the new law will be implemented going forward.”
Jordan Pike, a first generation farmer starting his 10th season at his Two Toads Farm in Lebanon, said the new law will allow small, family farms to flourish in Maine.
“Our communities need farmers now more than ever,” Pike said. “We are growers that depend on healthy soil, healthy animals and healthy plants to make healthy food that we eat ourselves.”
Without a food sovereignty ordinance, Pike said, if a farmstead ends a season with surplus meats or dairy they are unable to sell, those products are processed by a licensed dairy or butchering facility. Whether contracting that out to existing facilities or building their own, this can be cost-prohibitive to small farms.
With an ordinance, he said, these same farmers would potentially be able to sell directly to their customers food they process on site, free of licensing and site regulations.
The freedom to sell those extras not only puts healthy food into the local food distribution chain, it provides some additional income without additional expense for the farmers.
“Providing this service to community members and neighbors can mean the difference between keeping the cow — even keeping the farm– or having to sell out,” Pike said. “It means being able to pay the vet bill for an animal instead of putting it down, or pay the roofer to fix the leak in the barn, or the painter and keep our property values up.”
Retberg pointed to a family in her area who raises goats for meat and creates smoked goat sausage for their own consumption.
“Right now, if I go to their house for dinner and try that sausage, I wouldn’t be able to buy any from them,” she said. “If an ordinance is passed in their town, they can sell directly to me or any customer.”
Likewise, crafters of local ordinances are free to include locally produced foods like jams, jellies or baked goods, thus freeing those producers from the expense and time associated with setting up regulated, state-inspected kitchen facilities.
Retberg and other supporters of food sovereignty understand people are wary of local foods that may be unsafe if unregulated.
“A big part of the food safety is food exchanged between the food grower and consumer is at its lowest risk of pathogens [because] the more times food exchanges hands between producers and consumer, the more risk there is for problems due to temperature changes and exposure to bacterias,” Retberg said. “The law and ordinances are about relationships and trust [and] customers saying to the producers I am comfortable trusting you.”
To take advantage of the new law, towns must adopt the ordinance.
A template for anyone wishing to propose an ordinance at it is available for download at localfoodrules.org.
So far, 20 Maine towns have adopted the ordinance and Retberg said she is fielding calls from many more interested in starting the process.
“I am starting to hear from so many places,” she said. “I feel incredibly heartened for those of us who have been out there in front with machetes clearing the way that now we know there are really people who were behind us that needed this law to happen.”