by Sally Colby
When the town of Brooksville, ME passed an ordinance last week allowing town farmers to sell products directly to consumers without the farm having to meet state regulations, the news quickly became national. But it wasn’t really ‘new’ news. Brooksville was the ninth town in Maine to pass a food sovereignty ordinance.
Deborah Evans, a farmer who raises heritage hogs on her farm in Brooksville, says that the basis of the ordinance, which she has been working on since 2009, is her belief that she should be able to sell her farm-produced products to those who want them without going through burdensome state and federal regulations.
“I was getting raw milk from a farm in the next town over,” said Evans, explaining how the ordinance started. “They (the farm) were advised by the Maine Department of Agriculture that milking those three cows and selling milk to neighbors was no longer permitted without them being licensed and inspected and meeting certain architectural requirements.” Although the dairy farmer had contacted the state at start-up and was following the state’s guidance on how to start a small dairy, the state told the farmer that the rules for selling raw milk had changed. Evans says that in reality, the state was using a different interpretation of the rules.
That incident, among other related incidents involving the direct sale of farm products to customers, was the impetus behind Evans taking action. Evans says that there are many young people trying to get started in farming, often working several jobs off the farm until they become established. “Like so many others, they were trying to make a go of it,” she said, referring to the young family challenged by the state. “The state was telling them that the interpretation of the rules (for a small dairy) was changed, and that they’d have to make changes to pass inspection and get a license. They were also told that the department of ag was in the process of drafting new regulations for on-farm processing of poultry.”
Evans realized that this issue had huge implications for small-scale, start-up farms; a way of farming that was becoming more and more popular. Before long, Evans gathered the support of others and presented testimony on poultry regulations in Augusta. “Because they were making substantial changes, the department of ag had to review these changes with the legislature’s ag committee, and it was open to public comment. We came down to comment and tell our stories. They said ‘we hear you, and feel for you, but we can’t do anything’.”
According to Evans, the state told them that the reason new rules had to be passed was because the state would lose more than $200,000 in funding for its red meat inspection program, which could result in federal-level control of Maine’s red meat inspection program. “This threat sent the ag committee to the opposite corner,” she said. “They said their hands were tied — the feds were making them do it.”
Evans and the others at the meeting decided that since their elected representatives weren’t willing to take action, they would take action on their own. “As we were writing the ordinance, we worked on the nuances of the language,” she said. “We tried to strip out the term ‘consumer’ and used the word ‘customer’ and introduce the word ‘patron.’ People come to our farm; [they] choose to do so for the food they can get and also to support what we’re doing. They are patrons of our farm because they believe in the art of farming we practice.”
Evans says that as an ordinance under Maine’s Home Rule, strength comes from the fact that it is local and municipal in nature. “It doesn’t affect anything outside our community. Local is defined by town boundaries.”
By the fall of 2010, Evans and her group finished drafting the ordinance and submitted it in early 2011 to the selectmen in four towns: Brooksville, Penobscot, Sedgewick and Blue Hill. “When we were drafting the ordinance; there was someone from each of those four towns at the table,” said Evans.
The first town to consider the ordinance was Sedgewick, and they passed it on March 5, 2011. “They passed it unanimously,” said Evans. “Everybody in the room raised their hand. We were blown away — we had no idea that was going to happen.”
The following week, on March 8, Penobscot passed the ordinance unanimously. The Brooksville referendum vote failed by nine votes, which Evans says is probably due to several unpopular ordinances preceding the vote. However, in a referendum on March 4, Brooksville approved the ‘Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance,’ which states that producers and/or processors of local foods are exempt from licensure and inspection as long as the food is sold directly by the producer to the customer, or patron.
Other towns, including Blue Hill, Trenton, Hope, Plymouth, Livermore and Appleton have also passed food sovereignty ordinances. Evans says that the town of Hope passing it was significant because no one in the original group was from Hope.
“We threw this tiny little pebble into a great big pond and to this day, we’re all shocked by the ripple effect,” said Evans. “Out of 16 counties in Maine, there are towns in five different counties that have passed ordinances,” said Evans. “That’s closing in on 33 percent — one third of the state has counties with towns that have passed these ordinances.” Evans says that there are probably 6 to 12 more towns in the state in various stages of working to put together a petition and take it to their selectmen.
“We believe that our ordinance is constitutionally correct in Maine,” said Evans. “We know that at some point it may be tested in court of proper authority, but until the ordinance is tested, or if the citizens come forth and rescind the ordinance with a vote, that ordinance is the law of our town.”
Evans says that the goal of her group has always been the same. “We set out to fix the problem in our town,” she said. “Our goal has been to do whatever we can for whoever wants our help, whether it’s conference calls, sending copies of articles or giving testimony. But we have never gone out and said ‘you should do this in your town.’ It’s a citizens’ initiative, and it’s up to the people to decide.”
by Sally Colby