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The law, LD 725, called “An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food and Water Systems,” is written in two short parts. The first defines a local food system as a community food system within a municipality that integrates food production, processing, consumption, direct producer-to-consumer sales, and other traditional foodways. The second notes that “notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, a municipal government may regulate by ordinance local food systems…and the state shall recognize such ordinances.”
Twenty Maine towns already have approved the ordinance, some even before it was enacted, with another 20 or so in the works, says Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, Maine. Retberg, with her husband, runs a 105-acre beef, poultry, duck, lamb, raw milk, goat milk, pork, and egg farm. She was one of the leading advocates for getting the law passed.
“The ordinance exempts us from licensing and inspection for face-to-face sales,” she says. That means direct to consumer via a farm stand, for example. She, along with other farmers, figures that by selling directly to the consumer, they are assuring food quality and safety. Bad products will kill off repeat business from locals, she notes. Also, the food passes through fewer hands with such direct sales, also improving food safety.
What the new law also allows is the sale of home kitchen canned goods and baked goods in towns with an ordinance.
“If I have extra raspberries during a drought, I can sell jam to make money to buy hay for the pigs,” Retberg says, adding she is getting calls and has seen some farmers from outside the state move to Maine because of the local control of food. Maine laws in 2009 prevented the sale of such jams that weren’t made in a licensed commercial kitchen.
“This is about the public making decisions about direct public access to farm-raised foods,” she says. “People who buy from you can see how the farm is run and patronize us. You live and die on word of mouth.”
Jordan Pike of Two Toad Farm in Lebanon, Maine, which has yet to adopt the ordinance, says selling food locally is a way to strengthen the community, as people interact more and those who he previously couldn’t sell excess kale to, for example, he now can. He farms vegetables, chickens, turkeys, and pigs on 3 acres.
Pike, a former quality assurance manager at an international medical filtration plant, agrees with Retberg about the safety and quality local farmers and producers maintain to keep their business going.
But large dairies like Hood and the Maine Cheese Guild have opposed the ordinance, fearing unsafe products.
“It’s important, especially in the dairy industry, that farmers regularly test their products,” says Jessie Dowling, president of the Maine
Cheese Guild and a dairy farmer who runs Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Wakefield, Maine. “We feel there needs to be a line drawn for products sold off the farm. It’s one thing to sell a gallon of milk to a neighbor who knows you, but another to a tourist passing by who doesn’t know your dairy.” She says it’s very inexpensive to get a state license, which includes various tests.
Pike feels strongly that local farmers can assure their own quality. In a letter to LePage in early June, he wrote, “Before becoming a farmer, I managed a quality control lab in an FDA-regulated facility for a multinational. Managing seven inspectors on three shifts and having to sign off on over $1.5 million in medical product each month, it was a window into the minutia of regulation in a situation where it was needed. Farmers feeding neighbors is not where that approach belongs. Not at all.”
Maine’s ordinance succeeded, he and Retberg say, because the state has a strong home rule provision in its constitution.
It’s still not clear how quickly local sovereignty will spread both inside Maine to towns and to other states, as it is an educational process to get townspeople not involved in farming to understand the ordinance, and other state constitutions may not be as friendly to local control.
However, other states have made moves to boost direct farmer-to-consumer sales. Neighboring New Hampshire, for example, has a homestead exemption that allows home kitchen-made foods to be sold at the home or farmers markets. And the statewide Wyoming Food Freedom Act allows certain direct food sales transactions.
In a written statement to Food Quality & Safety, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) writes, “The Under Secretary for Food Safety has requested that Maine State authorities clarify how the new law will affect compliance with the FMIA [Federal Meat Inspection Act] and PPIA [Poultry Products Inspection Act] before the law takes effect in September 2017. Once the information is received and analyzed, FSIS will determine if further action is required to ensure that public health is protected.