PORTLAND, Maine — Two more towns in Maine have adopted local ordinances that exempt farmers from state and federal regulations if they sell their products directly to consumers, despite warnings that the ordinances are invalid.
Townspeople in Livermore and Appleton approved so-called local food and community self-governance ordinances at town meetings this month, joining six other towns that did the same thing last year. Residents in Fayette, however, voted down a similar proposed ordinance.
The votes should send a message that Maine residents want more local say on how to regulate small farms that process food ranging from poultry and milk to cheese and jam that are sold to people in their area, said Douglas Wollmar, a small-scale produce farmer in Blue Hill, which passed a similar ordinance last year.
Ultimately, supporters would like to see a state law passed that addresses their concerns.
“We’re trying to get more towns to pass the ordinance, because at the state level we’re not getting any attention,” Wollmar said. “The response we got from legislators is it’s nice you got five or six towns, but what you need is 50 towns before we’ll listen.”
Blue Hill, Sedgwick, Penobscot, Trenton, Hope and Plymouth last year passed ordinances proclaiming that federal and state regulations hinder local food production and usurp people’s rights to foods of their choice.
Supporters say the ordinances promote family farms, sustainability and healthy eating.
But state agriculture officials say the ordinances don’t hold legal muster and that regulatory oversight is essential for food safety and public health.
Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, who co-owns a dairy farm, said he’s supportive of local food producers, but his department has to ensure the products are safe.
The department strives to work with food processors, and licensing requirements aren’t as onerous as some people make them out to be, he said. Licenses require some basic common-sense requirements to ensure the public’s health.
“The inspection personnel try very hard to explain not only the law but the reasons why it’s beneficial for their future sales, as well as what is healthy for the consuming public,” Whitcomb said. “Setting aside the legal aspects, there’s nothing worse for sales from somebody getting sick from what they just bought from you.”
The local ordinances, he said, are invalid because they’re superseded by state and federal laws.
That warning, though, wasn’t enough to dissuade residents in Livermore and Appleton from green-lighting the same ordinance in their towns last week.
Cathy Lee, who collected signatures to force a vote at Livermore’s town meeting, said there’s a long history of home rule in Maine. Food safety issues, such as E. coli and salmonella problems, are more likely to crop up with large food corporations than with local farms.
State regulations, she said, require added paperwork, more inspections and expensive upgrades that are geared toward large farms and corporations. The regulatory burden, she said, is enough to put some farms and food producers out of business.
Maine isn’t alone.
Towns in Massachusetts, Vermont and California have all passed so-called food sovereignty ordinances or resolutions in the past year or so.
In Sandisfield, Mass., Brigitte Ruthman, the owner of Joshua’s Farm, proposed a resolution at last year’s town meeting after she received a cease-and-desist order from the state saying her dairy operation was illegal. Ruthman sells shares of her small dairy herd to people in the region, who then get a share of the raw milk from her cows.
To comply with state demands, she would have had to invest tens of thousands of dollars for a new cooling system, septic system and other equipment, she said. That might be reasonable if she were a commercial dairy, but the state was coming after her for milk from a single cow that was shared by three people, she said.
“On a micro level, this is really the aggravation we have with government,” she said. “You can’t control our lives, you can’t control our food choices that are very personal. Stop it.”
Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, said he expects more towns to follow suit.
“Right now Maine is way ahead of the curve as far as local food ordinances, but the trend is going in that direction,” Kennedy said.
In Maine, people in Fayette voted down a proposed food self-governance ordinance Saturday.
Town Manager Mark Robinson said residents and the Board of Selectmen are supportive of local farms and small-scale food producers. But they realized that a local ordinance wouldn’t carry any legal weight.
“The ordinance really did nothing other than send a message,” he said. “It gives the issue attention, but I would think so could an effort to amend state laws to address the issue.”