AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite being rebuked by lawmakers, the governor and the state’s Supreme Court, advocates for more local control over food policies are gearing up to bring their fight to Augusta once again.
“It has not taken the wind out of our sails,” said Heather Retberg, owner of Quill’s End Farm and a local food activist who will watch closely as several new bills aimed at loosening or eliminating regulations on small farm sales percolate through the Legislature this year.
“We never had high hopes for great movement to come from Augusta, but have always understood the movement would come from communities — and Augusta would respond to it. It takes time,” she said.
And time has been spent. At the local level, 11 Maine towns, including Retberg’s home of Penobscot, have passed ordinances to establish “local food sovereignty.” Those ordinances are designed to exempt small farmers and food producers from state and federal licensing and safety regulations, as long as they only sell directly to consumers.
Proponents say it’s a way to allow small food producers to participate in the local economy without having to conform to costly, scale-inappropriate infrastructure investments.
But the state holds that such ordinances hold no legal weight because state law supersedes municipal ordinances, and critics of local food sovereignty argue that whether farmers are selling food to neighbors or wholesale to a supermarket, the state has an interest in ensuring consumers’ safety.
Defeats in Legislature, courts
Efforts designed to bolster the ordinances or otherwise deregulate the local food economy so far gone have nowhere.
In 2013, An Act to Increase Food Sovereignty was defeated in the Legislature, as was an early version of a raw milk bill that would have allowed small farms to sell raw milk directly to consumers without meeting state safety standards.
Last year, another bill to deregulate the small-scale production and sale of raw milk was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. Another bill designed to deregulate face-to-face food sales between farmers and their customers — including those of meat, prepared foods and dairy — also failed in the Legislature.
Several of those bills garnered enthusiastic support from a large group of activists from around the state who wrote testimony or showed up at committee hearings to advocate for the proposals.
The same year, Blue Hill dairy farmer Dan Brown — a celebrity of the local food sovereignty movement — lost his years-long legal battle against the state when the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for him to sell unlabeled raw milk from his small, uninspected farm. Brown’s defense was, in part, that a local food sovereignty ordinance in Blue Hill protected him from such requirements, but the court balked at his argument.
Retberg said Thursday that despite what’s happened in Augusta and in court, some small farms in her community are continuing to trade, barter and sell food with little or no state oversight.
“This was already being lived, before the ordinance happened,” she said. “The ordinance was a way to protect what already exists in our local economy. Since it passed, it’s just continued.”
New bills, same goals
Now, several lawmakers are introducing new bills to promote local food. Many are not yet written, but the titles are illustrative.
There’s An Act to Promote Small Diversified Farms. Three other proposals are aimed at promoting raw milk sales, each offering varying degrees of deregulation. Another would create a “farms-to-farmers markets” certification program
There also are three bills by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, a small farmer and the most avid proponent of local food sovereignty in the Legislature. Hickman authored several of the bills that were torpedoed by lawmakers or the governor. But this year, he has been made co-chairman of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.
The lawmaker said he’s still working out the details of two of his bills, but the third is the most ambitious: It would amend Maine’s constitution to declare that all Mainers have a “right to food.”
When asked Friday whether such an amendment would mean individuals have a right to buy, prepare and eat whatever food they want — whether it comes from a licensed, inspected farm or not — Hickman said he believed such an interpretation would be correct.
“As a person who believes in individual liberty, especially around something as personal and intimate as eating, I think that will be implied,” he said.
Hickman also said he was surprised to see so many food-related bills slated to move through his committee, but was encouraged by them.
“It tells me those conversations still need to happen, and that these are issues people ran on to get elected,” he said.
He pointed to the state’s growing number of young farmers, and the proliferation of small farms, homesteads and farmers markets throughout the state. Despite legislative setbacks, he said, the local food economy is forging ahead anyway. Loosening regulation on local food could help the state’s economy, he said.
A tough row to hoe
Despite support from activists and farmers around the state, the select group of lawmakers pushing for deregulation of the small, local food economy faces an uphill battle in the Legislature.
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, is a former member of the Agriculture Committee who opposed Hickman’s and others’ proposals, and personally lobbied LePage to veto the raw milk bill, despite the governor’s initial support.
Timberlake, who also owns a large farm and apple orchard, said the problem with exempting small farms from safety regulations is that it jeopardizes all farmers. He cited an incident in the early 1990s when more than 160 students at Nokomis High School got sick after a school agricultural fair.
The illnesses eventually would be blamed on unclean apples, possibly contaminated by livestock feces, which were used to make a batch of fresh-pressed apple cider. Timberlake said the bad press generated by one careless farmer caused cider sales at his farm to fall by 50 percent that year.
If small farms aren’t following safe food practices, and the state can’t inspect them, the state’s whole agriculture sector could face the same risk as his farm all those years ago, he said.
“You don’t know if the cat walked across the counter where the food was prepped, or if Mom had just changed the baby’s diaper,” he said. “I don’t know how they’ll do in the House, but I got them beat last year. I’m not serving on the Agriculture Committee this year, but trust me: I’m going to have my finger on the pulse every day.”
If he’s successful, local food activists will face another year of defeats in Augusta. But Retberg and Hickman are optimistic. They believe that if change doesn’t come this year, it’s still coming.
“I think food is such a broad-reaching issue and there’s so much common ground that there’s always hope for good things to happen, otherwise we wouldn’t keep trying,” Retberg said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.