Legislature protects food sovereignty while complying with Federal concerns

Mary Perry, in her shop on her Forever Farm Winterberry in Maine.

Photos and Article by Ramona du Houx

Efforts to preserve Maine farmers’ food sovereignty succeeded during a special legislative session on October 24, 2017, as a bill written to allay the concerns of the USDA was enacted by a strong margin in the Maine Legislature, correcting federal concerns the sovereignty law passed during the spring session caused. Basically, it allows people to sell produce and products made or grown at home without over cumbersome federal fees and that the produce is sold out of the sellers home or business.

The law allows municipalities to regulate their own local food systems. 

At least 22 municipalities in Maine have passed local food sovereignty ordinances in an effort to get people closer to their food, and to ease regulations on growers. 

Foods including milk, cheese, cider, canned foods and vegetables can be sold this way, not poultry or meat.

Kathy Shaw of Auburn co-owns 4 Seasons Market and Valley View Farm with Joe Gray, and makes delicious homemade specialties. The law makes it easier her to branch out and try something new. “I used to have to send the recipe to the state, ship them a full sample, pay for the testing and wait for the results. It made me hold back on being more creative,” said Shaw.

Now, as long as she sells direct from her processing spot or farm she can put out her shingle and sell locally.

“If I wanted to take it to my farmers market in Falmouth or Cumberland, then I would still need to have them all submitted for testing,” said Shaw. “The law isn’t the whole answer but it’s a good start.”

The law should create more relationships between farmers and their customers, helping to build communities.

Owner of Winterberry Farm, a small diversified organic farm set on forty acres of open fields, pastures and woodland, Mary Perry welcomes the new law.

Winterberry was a 1870 homestead farm. We have pastures and vegetable fields that stretch back to Great Pond. For us this has been an important piece of our farming system to give back to this farm what is has given to my children and I— a life support system,” said Prerry. "The law helps build communities and local food systems."

Jams and preserves for sale in the Winterberry Farm shop in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Over 22 local ordinances are in place that work with the state law. Over 30 more are now being drafted.

With this law Maine becomes first state in the country that has recognized people at the community level now have the authority to live as communities in America used too when the country was founded—with more local control over local food sources.

“The law we passed earlier this year was designed to allow small-scale farmers and food producers to participate in the same kind of local food distribution systems that they have since time immemorial,” said Sen. Jackson.

LD 1648, “An Act To Amend the Law Recognizing Local Control Regarding Food Systems and Require Compliance with Federal and State Food Safety Regulations,” passed by unanimous consent in both the House and Senate. LD 1648 was crafted to fix unintended consequences of “An Act To Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems.” That law was sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson, and co-sponsored by Rep. Hickman and signed into law by Gov. LePage earlier this year.

“Without LD 1648, the state’s meat processing infrastructure could have endured harm, negatively affecting farmers of all sizes in all parts of the state and so I’m proud that we were able to come together to identify a solution everyone could agree on,” said Representative Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the organic farmer who co-sponsored the original legislation. Hickman, former Chair of the Agricultural Committee, also led the effort and passed legislation to grow edible food in Capitol Park.

Due to a missing clause in the original bill, the USDA issued guidance in a July 6 letter to the state, indicating that the law would bring Maine into noncompliance with federal meat and poultry inspection regulations. If Maine had been ruled out of compliance, the USDA could have assumed all meat and poultry inspections for the state, and many of the state inspected facilities could have been shut down.

“Today, we protected the rights of small, local farms to sell their goods to customers who know them by name, who consider these farmers their friends and neighbors,” said Sen. Jackson. “These customers know the quality of the food they purchased is good because, after all, it’s the same food the farmers ate themselves. Many Maine towns have passed ordinances to protect this ancient way of life, and this food sovereignty law recognizes and respect the right of communities to enact such ordinances.”