March 19, 2011

Towns exempt small farms from limits on selling food

Communities should have the right to set rules for processing food, supporters argue.

The Associated Press

PENOBSCOT - Two towns have passed ordinances that would exempt small-scale farmers from state and federal regulations if they sell foods they process directly to consumers.

At town meetings this month, residents in the Hancock County towns of Sedgwick and Penobscot passed ordinances that supporters say will help small-scale farming and food processing operations. A state legislator is proposing a law that would give similar exemptions.

Communities should have the right to decide rules governing small farms that process food -- ranging from chickens to cheese to jam -- sold to people in their own area, said Heather Retberg of Quill's End Farm in Penobscot, which sells farm-raised beef, pork, lamb and eggs.

"What the ordinance does is put the rule of law behind the towns," Retberg said. "We feel like if you're growing food by the community and for the community, it's up to the community to decide how to govern that food system."

Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb said the attorney general's office has written an opinion that says the local ordinances are trumped by state and federal laws and are therefore invalid.

Whitcomb, a dairy farmer, sympathizes with small-scale farmers and food processors, but said regulatory oversight is critical to food safety.

"They're suggesting what would amount to a huge relaxation of our laws," he said.

Hundreds of small farms in Maine grow vegetables, cattle, pigs, sheep and other food items that are typically sold to people who live near the farms. Many farmers make jams, cheese and pies in their kitchens and then sell them out of their home stores or farm stands.

Public hearings will be held next week in Augusta on several legislative bills that would relax or streamline laws regarding farm food production, slaughterhouses and the sale of raw milk.

Bob St. Peter, who operates Saving Seeds Farm in Sedgwick, said small farms could use a streamlined regulatory system to be able to grow.

"We aren't saying all regulation is bad. We're saying we need certain exemptions so we can grow and preserve the tradition of selling food to our neighbors without having to fill out regulatory forms and having our strawberry jam recipe tested for $10," he said.

The new Penobscot ordinance won't change how Retberg and her husband deal with their existing line of products, since they use a federally certified facility to butcher their cows, pigs and sheep.

But they plan to start processing chickens on their farm, something they'd be forbidden from doing under existing state regulations without constructing a separate chicken-processing building, she said.

 

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