Free our food

Small farmers demand independence from agrobusiness industry rules
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 4, 2011

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"From farm to table" isn't just a meaningless foodie slogan anymore. It's the rallying cry for the smallest of small-scale farming operations in Maine, which are fighting against what they consider to be burdensome state and federal regulations. In the process, they're laying the groundwork for a nationwide "food sovereignty" movement, aimed at restoring the direct relationship between food producers and consumers, while reducing government interference in local food systems.

It started on the Blue Hill peninsula, a cluster of tiny, rural, coastal towns about three hours northeast of Portland. A controversy over poultry regulations led a group of family farmers to Augusta, where they told legislators that state food-safety rules were too strict. They claimed that current law could require them to spend tens of thousands of dollars in permitting fees, equipment, and new facilities, just to butcher a few chickens and sell the meat to their neighbors.

At a public hearing and later at a work session, the farmers were told — sympathetically, but still — that if the state were to loosen its meat-inspection conditions, federal funding would be pulled. Hal Prince, director of the state's Quality Assurance and Regulation division within the agriculture department, explains that in order for the state to run its own meat-inspection program, its standards "have to be at least equal to the [US Department of Agriculture]." The USDA chips in about $200,000 — roughly half of the program's operating costs.

"It didn't have to do with food safety, it had to do with funding," says Heather Retberg of Quill's End Farm in Penobscot, a town of about 1300 people, where the chicken-butchering controversy originated. "The USDA is determining rules for products that are never leaving the state or even our own communities. We realized, if these things are happening to us, they're happening to other small farms around the state."

So began a series of meetings between local farmers determined to align food policy with their food philosophy. It's a battle with national implications, both legally and economically. And it exposes a key problem in the American system of food-safety regulation: states seeking to boost local producers are required to treat tiny farmers almost as if they are part of the agro-industrial complex.

"I think we've been colonized by a global economy that doesn't recognize the value of local communities," says Bob St. Peter, a Sedgwick farmer who is also the director of Food for Maine's Future, a local-food advocacy organization. "If we wanted to feed ourselves locally, we couldn't. The rules and regulations that have evolved over the last few generations have created this situation. We can buy into the industrial system, or we can create our own rules."

The folks in Hancock County chose the latter route.


Give me your chickens, your lettuce...

In early March, 120 people voted unanimously to pass the "Ordinance to Protect the Health and Integrity of the Local Food System" at Sedgwick's town meeting, at which all the town's citizens (population: 1100) are permitted to vote on municipal matters. At its core, the document decrees local independence and self-rule.

"We have faith in our citizens' ability to educate themselves and make informed decisions," the law reads. "We hold that federal and state regulations impede local food production and constitute a usurpation of our citizens' right to foods of their choice." (See sidebar, "Constitutional Commerce.")

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  Topics: News Features , Food and Drug Administration, University of Florida, food,  More more >
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