April 24, 2011

A growing concern

As small farms once again take root across Maine's agricultural landscape, some people wonder: Are state and federal food safety laws standing in their way?

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Beth Schiller says she has to make an appointment more than a year ahead to get a slaughter date for the pigs she raises at Dandelion Spring Farm in Newcastle.

click image to enlarge

Sheep are raised on Dandelion Spring Farm in Newcastle. Deregulation advocates say laws are holding farmers back from meeting the rising demand for locally grown and produced food. The challenge will be to ensure food safety while allowing innovation.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Beth Schiller fills a seedling cup with dirt in a greenhouse at Dandelion Spring Farm in Newcastle on Friday. It is getting more and more difficult for people to raise their own food, said Schiller, who grows vegetables on about five acres at the farm.

Additional Photos Below

Schiller, who sells the meat at farmers markets and to Portland restaurants, said the lack of licensed processing facilities is one of the hurdles she faces as a small farmer in Maine.

"It is getting more and more difficult for people to raise their own food," said Schiller, who also raises sheep and grows vegetables on about five acres.

She is among an increasing number of growers who say federal and state food safety regulations are not working for small farmers in Maine.

Several communities on the Blue Hill Peninsula have passed or are considering ordinances this town meeting season seeking to exempt local farmers and food producers from state and federal regulations.

Sedgwick, Blue Hill and Penobscot adopted local laws that say state and federal regulations do not apply in their towns if farmers and other food producers sell directly to their customers. Trenton voters will take up a similar ordinance next month, and comparable measures are also being considered in Monroe and Mount Vernon. At the same time, several bills aimed at easing regulations for small farmers are working their way through the Legislature.

A group of farmers in and around Brooksville drafted the local laws. Brooksville was home to the late Helen and Scott Nearing, who were influential forces in the back-to-the-land movement. Ironically, Brooksville is the only town on the Blue Hill Peninsula where voters rejected such an ordinance.

The farmers say state and federal food safety regulations are designed for large-scale agribusinesses and make no sense for the state's burgeoning numbers of small-scale farmers. Rather than wait for change at the state and federal level, they came up with their own model for deregulation at the local level, the Local Food and Community Self-governance Ordinance.

"We have been frustrated by the lack of understanding about what we are doing," said Bob St. Peter of Sedgwick, a community organizer and one of the drafters.

The ordinances, which may be the first of their kind in the country, have caught the attention of federal regulators, as well as attracting national notice in food and agricultural circles.

They have also divided Maine's agricultural community. The Maine Cheese Guild has come out against deregulation, while the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has remained neutral.

"There is quite a variation of opinion," said Maine Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb.

Mark Lapping, a professor who studies Maine agricultural policy at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, called the issue complicated and nuanced.

"A number of communities are passing these ordinances because they want to support and even nurture agriculture. On the other hand, states say their hands are tied because these regulations come down from the feds," said Lapping.

Lapping said part of the problem in Maine is that, along with its farms, the state has lost much of its food processing infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses and cold-storage facilities.

"All of this is coming to a head as more people in Maine and across the country are really getting very interested in a revival of local agriculture," he said.

Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the challenge is ensuring food safety but allowing innovation by farmers and food producers, such as Stonewall Kitchen in York, which got its start at farmers markets.

Advocates of the ordinances say current laws are holding them back from meeting the rising demand for locally grown and produced food. They say small farmers can't afford to comply with food safety rules that require them to build expensive facilities for slaughtering their chickens or commercial kitchens for making cookies, jams and other food products. They say the big food-borne disease outbreaks have involved large-scale agribusinesses.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Beth Schiller coerces a sow back to her pen Friday at Dandelion Spring Farm in Newcastle. Schiller said she has to make an appointment more than a year ahead to get a slaughter date, one of the hurdles she faces as a small-scale farmer in Maine.

click image to enlarge

Advocates of deregulation say small farms are naturally self-policing when it comes to food safety. Farms that fail to ensure quality won't stay in business.

 


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)