Steve Burger, seen Wednesday at his Winter Hill Farm in Freeport, plans to address lawmakers Friday about a new law that has confused and outraged many farmers. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Freeport farmer Steve Burger is concerned that his pigs will not be able to make their Nov. 6 slaughter date at Bisson’s in Topsham. Bisson’s is one of Maine’s five state-inspected meat-processing facilities that could be shut down by the federal government unless the Legislature amends a new food sovereignty law before Nov. 1.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said it will override Maine’s ability to run its own meat inspection program unless the state clarifies the law. Maine’s Department of Agriculture is concerned that the law would keep it from inspecting any meat slaughtered and processed in a town that is food sovereign, negating an agreement it has with the USDA to meet federal standards.

The prospect that meat-processing facilities like Bisson’s could close, even temporarily, has sent food producers across Maine into a state of near panic and confusion. The cause of the problem is the food sovereignty bill that Gov. Paul LePage signed into law in June despite opposition from his chief agricultural advisers.

If Steve Burger can’t process his hogs on schedule this fall, he’ll have to keep feeding them and the quality of their meat will go down over time. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The bill, called “An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems,” endorses the right of Maine communities to declare themselves “food sovereign,” something 20 communities, including several on the Blue Hill Peninsula, already have done.

In practical terms, it means consumers can buy directly from farmers and food producers in those communities who are operating outside of state and federal licensing. The legislation was intended by those who shaped it, including state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, its sponsor, and state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who has put forth numerous similar bills, as a means to encourage local food production and consumption.

“Perhaps with the best intentions,” Walt Whitcomb, Maine’s commissioner of agriculture, said during an appearance on a radio show Wednesday morning.

Problems ensued when the USDA said it would have to take control of inspections unless the law was amended to make it clear that state regulators can continue their work protecting Maine’s meat supply, regardless of whether a municipality is “food sovereign” or not.

VOTE SET ON BILL AMENDMENTS

As a result, the food sovereignty law has prompted confusion and outrage among many of the farmers and food producers whose independence and success it was supposed to bolster. The Maine Farm Bureau hopes to have 50 members show up at a public hearing Friday to oppose the law.

Several amendments have been proposed, and Burger plans to be among those who address the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry when it discusses the law Friday. After the hearing and a work session, the Legislature is scheduled to vote Monday on an amended bill.

Burger will speak out against the law generally, and specifically as it relates to the processing of meat. If he can’t get into Bisson’s on Nov. 6, he’s going to lose a month of hog-related income. That’s 50 percent of the monthly profits at Winter Hill Farm, which sends about 85 percent of its animals to state-inspected facilities.

“One of the legs of the stool is potentially being kicked out from under us,” Burger said.

Last year, state-inspected slaughterhouses in Maine produced nearly a million pounds of red meat, an increase of 42 percent in four years.

The issue to be addressed in the coming days is meat, but the Maine Farm Bureau’s executive director said there is widespread concern about the law’s ramifications for dairy and seafood, and for growers and processors of local foods.

Pigs at Winter Hill Farm in Freeport are slaughtered at Bisson’s in Topsham, one of Maine’s five state-inspected meat processing facilities that could be shut down by the federal government. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“This kind of thing is so frustrating because basically all agriculture in Maine is so fragile and we are kind of almost at that tipping point,” Julie A. Smith said. “Where we are either going to thrive or get wiped out. This kind of law is just detrimental to our progress.”

WASHINGTON CALLING

The legislative headache began with a flurry of warning letters between the state and federal officials in July. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called LePage to tell him that the USDA would be forced to take control of inspections unless the law was amended.

In August, the governor called for an emergency legislative session to amend the bill. “If the state program is eliminated, small farms will lose the most,” he said in a letter to legislative leaders.

If Burger can’t process his hogs on schedule, he’ll have to keep feeding them. The quality of their meat would go down with time, and who knows when he’d have a chance to get it processed if the state facilities were closed, even temporarily. He doesn’t want to get stuck with them.

“I’d have to sell them for pennies on the dollar,” Burger said.

He and cheesemaker Sarah Wiederkehr built their family business in Freeport based on a few factors, including predictability. The Department of Agriculture provides regulatory advice and licensing for the dairy side of their business, helping Wiederkehr be assured that her raw milk and cheeses are safe.

If Steve Burger can’t get his hogs into Bisson’s slaughterhouse on Nov. 6, he will lose a month’s hog-related income – 50 percent of Winter Hill Farm’s monthly profits. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The department also oversees, as it has for about 15 years, a meat-processing system. That includes five state-licensed facilities that process meat for retail sale, 30 custom facilities that deal directly with customers who bring them animals for personal consumption (like farmers culling their herd or hunters with a moose to break down) and 51 facilities for poultry processing. There is only one USDA-certified meat processor in the state, and the state Department of Agriculture has said it is “unlikely” the USDA would assign staff to Maine to run the former state facilities.

“We have the state slaughterhouses and we couldn’t run this business if we didn’t have them,” Burger said.

Like many in Maine’s agricultural and food community, Burger has been wondering why the governor signed the bill when the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry opposed it.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Burger said. “I have never heard him say why he thought that was a bill worth signing.”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, referred all questions to the Department of Agriculture.

Steve Burger carries a bucket of whey to his pigs Wednesday. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Among those who didn’t expect LePage to approve the law? Jackson, the Allagash Democrat who sponsored the food sovereignty bill in the 128th session. “I was surprised as anyone that he did sign,” Jackson said Wednesday.

The issue had come up multiple times since 2013, often sponsored by Hickman, a food sovereignty proponent whose experiences as a farmer in Winthrop motivated him to seek a deregulation of what you might call farm-to-friend sales.

The bill, L.D. 725, originally was assigned to the Committee on State and Local Government in March, instead of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, as it has been this week.

State Sen. Paul Davis, a Republican who chairs both the agriculture committee and the one on state and local government, said it would have been better if the bill had been assigned to the agriculture committee, which is more knowledgeable about food issues, from the beginning. “It probably then would have had a different outcome,” he said.

The Department of Agriculture was contacted by the federal officials “immediately” after the bill became law, said Ron Dyer, who oversees the department’s inspection program.

Steve Burger watches his pigs eat Wednesday at Winter Hill Farm. On Friday, he plans to tell the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee about problems caused by Maine’s new food sovereignty law. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Whitcomb, who comes from a farming family, told talk radio show hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler on Wednesday morning that he was in the governor’s office when a call came in from “Dr. Perdue” outlining the federal government’s problems with Maine’s new law. “The governor quickly committed to calling the Legislature back,” Whitcomb said.

Jackson hopes that the two-thirds majority that is needed for an amendment can be reached, but he’s aware that there may be further roadblocks, even if the law is amended. He knows the Food and Drug Administration is not enthusiastic about the law and that the farm bureau is rallying the troops.

“Go ahead,” he said. “They are not going to get the law repealed in this session for sure.”

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