Free our food

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 4, 2011

Then, citing the Declaration of Independence, the Maine constitution, and various state laws, the ordinance sheds those alleged shackles: "Producers or processors of local foods in the Town of Sedgwick are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the transaction is only between the producer or processor and a patron when the food is sold for home consumption."

Just weeks after Sedgwick passed its law, nearly identical measures passed in nearby Blue Hill, which is home to about 2300 people, and Penobscot. One in Brooksville, another coastal town in Hancock County, was not approved. (There is currently a petition circulating to revisit the Brooksville vote.) More than two dozen small-scale food-production operations are "covered" by the ordinances.

The day after the vote in Sedgwick, St. Peter and his daughter started Poppaloona's Cookie Club — an unlicensed cookie-baking business — out of their home kitchen using both local and non-local ingredients. The cookies are delicious, but this entrepreneurship was also a statement: St. Peter is operating under the language of the ordinance.

On April 6, after consulting with the Maine Attorney General's Office, state agriculture commissioner Walter Whitcomb sent a letter to several communities that either had passed or were considering similar laws. The letter reminds local officials that "the ordinance is pre-empted by state law" and that "persons who fail to comply will be subject to enforcement" including removal of products for sale, or monetary fines.

"We certainly hope things don't get to that point," Whitcomb said in a follow-up phone interview. He stressed that "we're not trying to be unreasonable," and that as a small farmer "I understand the challenges of sometimes finding five dollars."

But the state must convince the feds that it can handle its own inspection process — "we have to demonstrate that constantly." Failing to do so would result in even more scrutiny for Maine farmers, Whitcomb says. If the state does not adhere to regulations that are just as or more stringent than federal ones, it won't be permitted to run its own meat-inspection program. That would bring more USDA inspectors to the state — and they'll be even less accommodating to small farmers.

This logic also explains why several legislative proposals, including one that echoes the sentiment of the local ordinances and another that makes it easier for farmers to sell raw milk without a license, haven't gotten a lot of support in Augusta. It's a paradox: in order for Maine to maintain some level of local authority over its own regulatory system, the state relies on federal funding. And that money is at risk if Maine strikes out too far on its own.

USDA representatives refused to comment on the record for this story, but did say the agency is monitoring the situation, and that Maine's handling of it has been appropriate so far.

...your homemade cookies...

Regardless of how the laws shake out here, it's clear that this handful of back-to-the-landers is at the forefront of a burgeoning national campaign.

"What's happened in Maine has created a lot of interest nationally," says Pete Kennedy, a lawyer and the president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), a Virginia-based non-profit that advocates for small-scale farmers and consulted with the peninsula activists on the language of their ordinance. "There are several other states where this is being tried, but [they haven't] gotten as far as Maine has."

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