A year-and-a-half ago, Maine’s landmark food-sovereignty law empowered towns to regulate their own dairy/pickle/poultry trade. So how is it changing the way farming communities do business?
Illustration by Kelsey Grass
By Virginia M. Wright
About nine years ago, Maine’s small farms found themselves at a tipping point. Heather Retberg felt the shift firsthand at her Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, when a state agriculture inspector showed up to tell her there’d been a rule change at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. She could no longer legally sell her chickens, the inspector said, even though they’d been slaughtered at a friend’s licensed facility.
“Any farm selling poultry would have to build its own processing facility,” Retberg says, but she and her husband, Phil, weren’t selling enough to justify the expense. “We couldn’t raise 200 to 300 birds and pay for that kind of facility, and raising more chickens wasn’t good for our land or for our market.”
Soon after, the same inspector returned to inform Retberg of another rule change: if she wanted to continue selling raw milk from the three cows that Phil milked by hand, she’d need a milk distributor’s license and a dedicated milking room.
“It didn’t make sense,” Retberg says. “It seemed like, wow, this is how people get indebted in a way that kills farms.”
So began a movement, spearheaded by Retberg and a handful of other Blue Hill Peninsula farmers, to preserve the intimate grower-to-neighbor trade that’s taken place in Maine’s small towns for generations. By 2017, they had helped organize 20 communities to pass ordinances that asserted local government’s right to regulate local food systems, unencumbered by state licensing and inspection requirements that Retberg and her peers say were written for much larger farms and processors.
“It didn’t make any sense. it seemed like, wow, this is how people get indebted in a way that kills farms.”
The culmination of their campaign came in 2017, when the state legislature passed, and then-Governor Paul LePage signed, a bill requiring the state to recognize local mandates permitting “direct producer-to-consumer food exchanges and other traditional foodways.” Since the law went into effect in November 2017, the number of municipalities with food-sovereignty laws has mushroomed to 47, across 14 of Maine’s 16 counties.
“It is the policy of this State,” the law declares, “to encourage food self-sufficiency for its citizens.”
So what does that mean? The new local ordinances relax restrictions on farm- and home-based sales of many processed foods. Consumers can go to a farm, for instance, and purchase foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, cider, and baked and canned goods processed without any state oversight or inspection — provided those doing the selling also did the processing. Meat and poultry must continue to be processed in a state-inspected slaughterhouse, though an exemption for flocks of fewer than 1,000 birds allows farmers like the Retbergs to slaughter and sell whole birds at their farm, as long as they register with the state and allow periodic inspections. Producers still need state certification to sell outside of their food-sovereign municipality.
“It’s taken the threat away,” Retberg says. “It means no inspector is going to come down our driveway with a cease-and-desist order, as one did at one point. We’re now recognized as legal.” The law also allows for flexibility, she says. A farmer with surplus tomatoes and cucumbers can now make and sell tomato sauce and pickles without first obtaining a license or undergoing a kitchen inspection.
“It’s taken the threat away. It means no inspector is going to come down our driveway with a cease-and-desist order. we’re now recognized as legal.”
“Maine is ahead of the curve,” says Pete Kennedy, a legal consultant for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington, DC–based advocacy group that supports food-freedom legislation. A few other states — Wyoming, Utah, and North Dakota — have passed laws allowing unregulated direct sales of most foods other than meat, but only Maine lets people define the terms for their food systems at the community level. “No one else has come close to doing that,” Kennedy says.
Maine has taken a similarly local approach to other commodities — sales of fireworks and recreational marijuana, for instance, are legal in Maine, but individual towns can prohibit them. “That’s just the way Maine is — the big thing is local control,” says Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, who sponsored the food-sovereignty bill. A logger from Fort Kent, he initially opposed food-sovereignty legislation when it was first introduced in 2013, out of concerns for safety, but he changed his mind after hearing food-industry lobbyists testify against another bill, requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food.
“On one hand, you had people who live right beside you, you see how they operate, and they’re being kept out of an industry by overregulation and laws that seem less about food safety than about helping the big players,” Jackson says. “On the other hand, you had Monsanto and other big companies, who claimed to be for food safety, standing square in the way, saying people shouldn’t be able to know what’s in their food.”
Unregulated small producers have strong incentives to make sure their food is safe, Kennedy explains. “Number one, they’re feeding the same food to their families. Number two, one illness can put them out of business. It’s not like a major corporation, where the cost of paying out damages to a sick person is part of the cost of doing business.”
“A lot of people here make home-baked goods or jams or have excess produce. we think it’s great they can now make some money from that.”
Suzanne Dunham says she sees the effects of the food-sovereignty legislation in her town of Greenwood, near Bethel. Dunham was instrumental in bringing an ordinance before a town meeting just days after the Maine legislature passed the state law. One neighbor, she says, began selling coffee beans she roasted at home (it went so well, she ended up acquiring home-processing and mobile-vendor’s licenses to sell at other venues). Two bakers took to selling their homemade breads, pies, and cookies, which before would have required a licensed home kitchen. “A lot of people here make home-baked goods or jams or have excess produce,” Dunham says. “We think it’s great they can now make some money from that.”
In the Somerset County town of Madison, one unexpected outcome of the food sovereignty law has been an increased sense of community among farmers, says Sonia Acevedo, who raises dairy cows and goats and grows veggies and fruits on her 10-acre Hide and Go Peep Farm. New and longstanding members of the town’s two Granges worked together to write, and garner support for, their local food law. “Our ordinance was brought to the table by an older Granger,” Acevedo says. “In terms of fostering generational connections and inter-Grange solidarity, it’s been wonderful.”
Sales of raw milk, cheese, and yogurt have helped Acevedo boost her bottom line. “Because we’ve been freed from that regulatory burden,” she says, “the dairy animals are now at the center of our farm as opposed to the periphery.”
But what excites her most is the impact on consumers in a poor, rural corner of the state.
“Before, they were limited to what was in the gas station or the nearest grocery, which, for some, is 30 miles away,” she says. “Now, our low-income people have access to local food.”