Small farmers in Maine are closely watching a legal case headed for Hancock County Superior Court in Ellsworth. The state is suing a Blue Hill farmer to stop him from selling unpasteurized milk. The case could test the legality of dozens of small farming operations in the county and the scope of local marketing of organic food.
Dan Brown, the defendant, operates Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill and sells raw milk from one of his five cows to two regular customers and others who stop by his farm stand. He contends that state agriculture officials told him that he could do so legally, as long as he didn’t advertise.
His lawyer, Sandra Collier of Ellsworth, says Brown spent $30,000 building his farm stand and was selling raw milk legally until officials reinterpreted the law and now insist that he must have a license to continue.
She says she hopes for dismissal of the case before it comes to trial on the grounds that Brown obeyed an earlier interpretation of the law. She relies first on “estoppel,” a legal bar that prevents a party’s assertion of a fact or a claim inconsistent with a previous position that other parties relied upon.
If that is insufficient, she may invoke Blue Hill’s Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance enacted last year. It exempts small local farmers from state and federal licensing and inspection laws provided that food is sold directly to consumers and not for resale. Three other Hancock County towns — Sedgwick, Penobscot and Trenton, plus Hope in Knox County and Plymouth in Penobscot County — have enacted similar ordinances, sometimes called “food sovereignty” laws. Collier sees a legal possibility that these local ordinances can pre-empt state and federal laws.
Philip and Heather Retberg operate Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot and helped write that town’s ordinance. They sell raw milk from four cows to more than 100 customers and also raise lambs, pigs, goats and beef cattle. The Retbergs say they rely on state law and the town ordinance. State authorities have complained that they need a license and have referred the matter to the Maine attorney general’s office. They have heard nothing further and say they do not need a lawyer.
Even for those who are no fans of raw milk, honest work and idealism deserve respect. Let’s hope that officialdom, the lawyers and the courts can find ways to help small farms and local food survive, while still safeguarding public health.