October 10, 2011
Los Angeles County, California, is considering a resolution “recognizing the rights of individuals to grow and consume their own food and to enter into private contracts with other individuals to board animals for food.”
This resolution did not arise in a vacuum. Santa Cruz County, California, recently passed a similar resolution. Nevada County, California, citizens are pushing a similar resolution. And in El Dorado County, California, Farmer Pattie Chelseth has proposed a “Local Food and Self Governance Ordinance.”
All three of these measures are based on the “Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinances” that passed in four small Maine towns in Hancock County this spring.
All of the measures share a resistance to one-size-fits-all regulation intended for large-scale agribusiness food production and processing by such corporations as Cargill, in order to help prevent the kind of food borne illnesses that are becoming more commonplace with the rise of industrial farming practices.
Corporate farming is big business with big-time lobbying: for example, Cargill spent $400,000 lobbying the “Food Safety Modernization Act” (S. 510) in the second quarter of 2010.
The Center for Media and Democracy spoke with Sedgwick, Maine farmer Bob St.Peter, who met with other local farmers, farmworkers and the neighbors who eat their food to draft and pass these local ordinances.
Opening Shots: Small Poultry Producers Bill
When asked about the history of these ordinances in his community, St.Peter explained:
This process started a couple of years ago when a bill came before the Maine legislature that would create an exemption for small-scale poultry producers. . . . After it was passed, it was sent to the the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. They were in charge of writing the rules for the facilities and processes that would be acceptable. They ended up drafting rules that would require two-room facilities with septic systems and hot and cold running water. These would cost farmers $20-40,000 to build.
They had a public hearing on this. . . on December 21st, 2009. The message there from farmers, workers and patrons was that local farms have “direct sale, transparency, traceability and accountability to ensure that food is safe. The animals are healthy.” . . .
After the hearing, they [the government] came back with a “compromise” rule that would require a one-room facility with a lot of similar features. So, if starting from scratch on a farm, it would require spending a good deal of money up front to put up a facility. A lot of us said that, in the case of small poultry processing, facilities are only used a few times a year. The requirements didn’t make economic or logistical sense for small farms.
The rules. . . went back to the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry in the state legislature for review and potential voting. . . . The co-chair of the Committee started the hearing by introducing the bill and telling the public that, while this was a contentious issue, there was funding at stake from the [[U.S. Department of Agriculture]] (USDA), and if Maine wrote regulation less restrictive than the federal rule, the state would lose its funding, and this was not up for negotiation.
From that point on, the hearing was just a formality. . . . At the end the Agriculture Committee voted to approve the Agriculture Department’s rules, and the bill passed the full legislature. It banned outdoor poultry processing for direct sale in the state of Maine.
What Regulators Don’t Understand About Real and “Diversified” Sustainable Family Farming
According to St.Peter, the next step was to figure out what had gone wrong. What was the fundamental disconnect between small farmers like him and the regulators at the Department of Agriculture?
A number of people from my community– I live on a peninsula with five towns– convened and discussed what to do next. Two things were really obvious to us:
First, funding was a significant barrier to our participation in the process. With the FDA being specific as to stopping the state’s funding and taking away our program if we continued our efforts, we couldn’t compete. Clearly the state would side with the funding source.
The second thing that came up through the discussion process was that certain people in the Department of Agriculture don’t understand what we’re doing on our small diversified farms.
Much of what the Department does is regulate and oversee specialized operations, whether dairy, poultry, or value-added. By comparison, our model, which has existed in rural communities for a long time, is that of small diversified farms, with some chickens, some pigs and some crops. They didn’t understand how our farms worked and what we were doing on ecological principles, promoting animal health so that we could assure safe food.
One of the farmers who testified in favor of allowing open air outdoor processing said, “I raise my chickens on pasture, moved every day to fresh grass, so these are healthy animals when they go to slaughter. What I do when I process is less relevant because I’m working with health animals.”
The woman in charge of overseeing livestock regulation didn’t understand what he meant by healthy. She said, “You mean, you don’t have them in a barn?”
There are very real differences in understanding of what we do on our farms, but they regulate us anyway. So we all agreed that we should do something. People were losing important parts of their livelihood.
I’d had experience with local ordinances against GMOs [genetically modified organisms] in the state and was aware of corporate personhood resolutions on the local level, so we decided to pursue local ordinances, talk to our neighbors and townspeople, and get redress.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which the Center for Media and Democracy is continuing to investigate, has approved “model” resolutions to restrict local pesticide ordinances and local efforts to regulate GMOs, and other agricultural and environmental matters.
Getting Warmed Up: Drafting Local Ordinances
With the issues above as starting points, a core group of farmers, workers and neighbors drafted the ordinance over the summer of 2010, taking it to community groups for their input in the fall:
We talked with local farmers and producers, the local Republican Party and the local Democratic Party, the Chamber of Commerce and the local Grange. Everyone we talked to was surprised at what was gong on and the difficulties farmers were facing, and was very supportive.
Part of that process was reminding people that our communities, as far as agriculture goes, used to look a lot different. What we were asking of the state was to return to how agriculture had existed in our communities for hundreds of years, since Europeans settled here.
People were surprised to hear that this was changing, that there were crackdowns on raw milk, etc. So we found lots of support wherever we went, and we finalized the ordinances.
A number of us who were involved lived in different towns, so we ended up having four towns represented, and we brought the ordinances to our towns through the town meeting process.
Five Maine Towns Propose the Ordinance; Four Pass
On Saturday, March 5, 2011, the town of Sedgwick, where St.Peter lives and farms, passed the first local ordinance on this issue, by a unanimous vote.
On Monday, March 7, the people of the town of Brooksville voted down its proposed ordinance by a margin of nine votes, “however voting irregularities have called the vote’s validity into question. Brooksville town residents are circulating a petition calling for a revote at a special town meeting, which could take place in as little as a few months. The petition questions the legality of placing the town’s Ordinance Review Committee’s recommendation of a “No” vote on the ballot.”
On Tuesday, March 8, the town of Penobscot unanimously passed its ordinance.
On Saturday, April 2, the town of Blue Hill passed its ordinance by “an overwhelming voice vote margin.”
On Saturday, May 21, the town of Trenton passed its ordinance by a margin of four votes.
Other States Use the Ordinance as Template
Before the fifth Maine town brought its local food ordinance to a vote, the town of Sandisfield, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, passed its own ordinance based on those in Hancock County, Maine. On Saturday, May 14th, Sandisfield unanimously passed the measure resolving that: “We the people of the town of Sandisfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, have the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of family farms and local food traditions.”
On March 4, Barre City, Vermont citizens voted 686 to 220 and “resolved to declare sovereignty over. . . the right to save seed, grow, process, consume and exchange food and farm products.” On May 10, 2011, the nearby Town of Barre voted 673 to 200 to pass the “Vermont Resolution for Food Sovereignty, a document written by members of the Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty in December of 2010,” which recognizes “that the People have the right and responsibility, individually and through their elected officials, to resist any and all infringements on the rights to save seed, grow, process, consume and exchange food and farm products within the State of Vermont.”
On April 6, 2011, the Maine Commissioner of Agriculture, Walter Whitcomb, wrote a letter to the town of Blue Hill (a similar letter was sent to the other towns that had proposed and/or passed ordinances, according to St.Peter) informing them that “because this conflicts with and would frustrate the purposes of state food licensing and inspection laws, the ordinance is preempted by state law. . . . Accordingly, town residents involved in food processing and sales activities which are subject to state licensing and inspecting are not exempt from those requirements. . . . [P]ersons who fail to comply will be subject to enforcement, including the removal from sale of products from unlicensed sources and/or the imposition of fines.”
Food and farming activist Barbara Clancy, who spoke about the local food ordinances at the August 26 Democracy Convention, noted that the four towns that have passed ordinances are “gathering organizational support to go to court.”
Farmers and Eaters Drive the Movement
St.Peter and Clancy both urged those in other states seeking to pass similar ordinances or resolutions for their regions to keep them farmer-driven and eater-driven rather than sponsored by organizations because both the regulations and the ordinances have strong personal effects on both farmers and their local patrons.
St.Peter explained that the Maine ordinances “came out of the direct experiences of people who were trying to produce food for their community, and what we needed in order to be able to do that. . . . We didn’t come at it as food sovereignty or food justice activists. This was critical to our success. . . . I was involved because I’m a farmworker and a small-scale farmer. . . At the public hearings, the people speaking were those directly affected. They were the key organizers, not any organizational leadership. They were neighbors– a few farmers and farmworkers and eaters/patrons– facing the prospect of losing their small farms and access to local foods.”