A northern Maine senator has thrown support to the food sovereignty movement, sponsoring a bill to legitimize the authority of towns and communities to enact ordinances regulating local food and water distribution free from state regulatory control.

In sponsoring LD 725, An Act to recognize local control regarding food and water systems, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said this week he is not an expert on local food production but decided to introduce the bill in the face of the state’s growing food sovereignty movement.

Advocates of food sovereignty want local food producers to be exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food as long as the transactions are between the producers and the customers for home consumption or when the food is sold and consumed at community events such as church suppers.

“I was on the [Legislature’s] Agriculture Committee in 2013 and 2014 and heard a lot of people saying they supported the right to buy food food face to face without the state stepping to regulate things,” Jackson said. “I felt this was important to small producers.”

To date, 18 Maine towns in seven counties have declared food sovereignty with local ordinances giving residents the right to produce, sell, purchase and consume local foods of their own choosing in Sedgwick, Blue Hill, Penobscot, Trenton, Hope, Appleton, Isle Au Haut, Plymouth, Livermore, Freedom, Moscow, Solon, Bingham, Brooklin, Liberty, Madison and Alexander.

Earlier this month the Rockland City Council stopped short of adopting a food sovereignty ordinance, opting instead to pass a compromise resolution supporting its local food producers.

Not everyone is a fan of decreasing state food regulations in favor of local control, including Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, one of New England’s largest apple farms.

“I’ve always been against [food sovereignty legislation] at the state level,” Timberlake said Thursday. “If you want to change the law, my feeling is you should do it at the federal level.”

Jackson’s bill would authorize municipal governments to adopt ordinances regulating their own food systems and the transporting of water for commercial purposes. It further requires the state to recognize those ordinances.

“There is an awful lot happening on the ground in Maine in terms of food sovereignty,” Heather Retberg, Penobscot farmer and food sovereignty advocate, said. “Until now most of it has been from the local communities and, more importantly, it has been moving horizontally from one community to another and we are seeing a real strengthening of that support.”

But Timberlake, who stressed he had not yet read Jackson’s proposed bill, disagrees. He said he believes in general terms that turning food safety control over to municipalities by taking state regulatory control out of the equation is dangerous.

“You can’t have it so the towns are creating unsafe food,” Timberlake said. “Those state regulations are there for the safety of Maine people.”

Others, though, like the sound of the proposed bill.

“At first blush this bill sounds positive,” said Jesse Watson, Rockland resident and owner of Midcoast Permaculture Design, who helped craft the proposed ordinance. “This is what we are after, for the state to recognize the inherent right of local municipalities to design their own food systems.”

Watson only first heard the bill’s text Thursday and said lawyers might have their own take on its language, but he felt it was a step forward for the food sovereignty movement.

“In the event any town or municipality wants to design and regulate its own local food or water systems, the state needs to recognize that right,” he said. “It does not make sense to me that on these fundamental issues someone in Augusta should make a decision that affects someone clear on the other side of the state.”

If passed, according to Retberg who helped craft its language, the bill would allow municipalities such as Rockland to enact citywide food sovereignty ordinances without fear of state retribution.

“This would be an incredibly positive direction for Maine to move in,” she said. “There is room for [communities] to be regulating the direct exchange of food and the bill would align [food sovereignty] ordinances with state law.”

For Jackson, it comes down to local control over local food and water supplies.

“Many times laws are enacted by people who don’t understand the local issues because they are not from that area,” he said. “People in the community should have the ability to set the standards they believe in [because] they are the ones that know those issues the best.”

LD 725 has been referred to the Legislative state and local government committee and will be scheduled for public hearing, Jackson said.

Similar legislation was introduced last year, but was killed by the Senate. Introduced by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the bill would have made food sovereignty part of the Maine constitution by amendment.

Timberlake said the state has no interest in over-regulating producers of food or driving people out of business with costly licenses and inspections.

“If the state does shut someone down they would have had to have done something pretty grievous,” he said. “Normally if they find a problem they will put the operation on probation and then come in to help get that operation where they should be, [and] I have seen the state bend over backward almost any time they have had to step in.”

The issue with those supporting food sovereignty and local control, Timberlake said, is people simply not wanting to follow any rules.

“I know this could be an uphill battle,” Jackson said of his own bill. “It could be a long shot because the state seems to want to stop that type of commerce between people.”

Retberg is cautiously optimistic for the bill’s future, given that the legislation defeated last year went down by only a single vote.

“This is a brand new [legislative] session so it’s early,” she said. “But I feel hopeful there is a growing recognition of the importance of local control over the local food and water supplies.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.