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

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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

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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.

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They argue that small-scale farming is naturally self-policing when it comes to food safety. Local farms that fail to ensure the quality of their food won't stay in business.

"I know what food safety means to me. It means that I know the hands that feed me: the hands of my neighbors, the hands of other farmers in my grange, my own hands," said Deborah Evans, a Brooksville farmer who helped draw up the model ordinance.

But critics say deregulation advocates have exaggerated the costs of complying with food safety laws. They say they welcome regulation to ensure the quality of their food.

"This is about a commercial level of food processing, not about Grandma who can't sell her jelly without being regulated," said Eric Rector, owner of Monroe Cheese Studio in Monroe and president of the cheese guild.

Rector said he manages to comply with Maine's regulations even though he is a small-scale producer who makes about 10 pounds of blue, Gouda and feta-style cheeses a week to sell at the Belfast Farmers Market.

He said it costs him $25 a year for a cheese maker's license, which covers the cost of having his water tested annually and a yearly inspection by a state dairy inspector. He said the inspector operates more like a partner than an enforcer to help ensure the cheese being produced is of the highest quality.

Rector said it cost him $150 to set up his cheese-making facility, mostly for stainless steel pots, in a room in his barn. He said nobody knows how many food-borne illnesses are caused by small farmers operating outside the regulatory process.

"To me, these are people who don't want to bother," he said. "They seem to be making a political statement, and politics shouldn't be involved in how we make food safe."

The local ordinances are creating headaches for state agricultural officials who say they are trying to protect Maine food producers from more federal oversight. Whitcomb, the agriculture chief, said federal officials are closely monitoring events in Maine.

"This is serious. They are asking our inspection officials, 'What are you going to do about it?' If they are not satisfied, they will take over," said Whitcomb.

He asked the Maine Attorney General's Office to draw up a letter, which has been sent to all three communities with ordinances, informing them state law pre-empts the ordinances.

"Persons 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," the letter states.

The Legislature has given a chilly response to several bills aimed at deregulating small farmers this session. A measure that would have eased rules governing the sale of raw milk died before the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. A bill that would allow people to sell food prepared in their homes directly to customers appears headed for a similar fate.

That has not deterred farmers like Evans, who said she will continue to sell her "criminal caramels," which she makes in an unlicensed kitchen from lard rendered from her pigs, which are slaughtered in a licensed facility.

"This is about our right to choose," said Evans.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:



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Additional Photos

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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.

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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.


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