BLUE HILL, Maine — Small-scale farmers and Mainers who buy directly from them held a boisterous rally Friday to support a Hancock County man sparring with agriculture officials over his right to sell “raw milk” and other products from his farm without a license.
Farmer Dan Brown admitted to the crowd of 150-plus people gathered outside Blue Hill’s Town Hall Friday that he has become a reluctant spokesman for his side in the potential legal fight emerging over Maine’s vibrant “local foods” movement.
“I would like to be nowhere else than on my farm,” said Brown, clearly uncomfortable in front of a large group and a microphone.
But Brown has, indeed, become the public face in a court case that could test the legality of a “local food” ordinance that seeks to exempt him and other farmers from state or federal inspections and licensing.
“Who is Farmer Brown?” shouted one rally attendee.
“We are all Farmer Brown,” came the response from the crowd.
Brown, who runs Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, received notice earlier this month that the Maine Department of Agriculture has filed a lawsuit to stop him from selling raw or unpasteurized milk without a license.
State agriculture officials maintain that licensing of raw milk distributors is necessary to protect the public, given the potential for harmful bacteria in unpasteurized milk. A sample of milk from Brown’s farm tested by the state was found to have bacteria levels well above the legal limit.
But state officials said it is also necessary to protect Maine’s dairy industry, which would take a serious hit in the public eye and would come under heavy scrutiny from federal regulators if someone became ill after drinking raw milk from an unlicensed dairy.
“Heaven help them if someone gets seriously sick,” Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb said recently. “They are going to lose public confidence.”
To those gathered in Blue Hill on Friday, however, the lawsuit filed against Brown by Whitcomb’s department is an attack on consumers’ rights and on the towns that have adopted “food sovereignty” ordinances.
“We have asserted the right to choose what food we eat and feed our families,” said Heather Retberg, a Penobscot farmer who sells raw milk.
Retberg said she and other farmers are simply serving friends and neighbors who would rather purchase their milk, produce or meat from a farm down the road owned by a person they trust.
Five Maine towns — Blue Hill, Penobscot, Sedgwick, Trenton and Hope — have adopted ordinances declaring that farmers who sell to consumers directly for home consumption are not subject to inspection or licensing by state or federal regulators.
Maine agriculture officials disagree, saying the state and federal health safety laws preempt local ordinances. During an interview on Wednesday, Whitcomb said the lawsuit against Brown was not intended to test those towns’ policies, although he acknowledged the issues are one and the same among some who support the local ordinances.
Blue Hill’s Board of Selectmen met Friday during the rally and voted to send Whitcomb a letter asking the department to drop the charges against Brown and to respect the town’s local food ordinance.
Not everyone in Maine’s raw milk industry opposes state licensure and regulation, however.
Brian Call and Joan Gibson, owners of Milky Way Organic Farm in Levant, are licensed to sell unpasteurized milk both directly to consumers and to milk processors for eventual pasteurization.
They are among 32 farms statewide licensed to sell raw milk and 67 licensed to sell cheese made from raw milk, according to figures supplied by agriculture officials.
Gibson and Call agreed that the state’s licensure and inspection process is not cumbersome, with both saying they have found department staff cooperative and easy to work with. While Gibson acknowledged that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over-regulates farmers in some instances, she does not believe requiring farmers who sell raw milk to meet health and safety requirements is unreasonable.
As an example, Gibson said the state requires tuberculosis testing of all cows producing milk that is sold without pasteurization because milk can carry the bacteria that causes TB. Additionally, raw milk must be carefully bottled and kept well chilled to avoid bacteria growth, she said.
Currently, the FDA only allows sale of raw milk in Maine because of the state inspection and licensing program. But if the state allows sales from unlicensed farms and someone gets sick, the FDA could step in and shut down all raw milk operations in the state, Gibson said.
“That would put people like me, who have followed the law and are regulated by the state, out of business,” she said. “There needs to be laws in place” to regulate raw milk.
Brown has 20 days from the time he was served with the lawsuit to file a written response. He said this week he was waiting to hear whether organizations involved in local control issues in the agriculture industry would help with his defense.