We, the People…of Sedgwick, Maine
by Ed Yowell
April 4, 2011
Sedgwick, Maine, a town of about 1,200 souls, on Saturday, March 5, 2011, took on the State of Maine and the United States of America in a food fight of constitutional magnitude. On that day, Sedgwick residents struck a blow for their food sovereignty by adopting their Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance.
The Ordinance, probably the first of its kind in the nation, is based on a template offered by a local group, Food for Maine’s Future. It begins, “We, the People of the Town of Sedgwick, Hancock County, Maine, 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.” Citing authority in The Declaration of Independence, the Maine Constitution, and the Maine Revised Statutes (but not the United States Constitution), the Ordinance provides that, “Producers or processors of local foods…are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the transaction is only between the producer or processor and a patron when the food is sold for home consumption.”
The Ordinance, regarding “State and Federal Law,” provides that, “It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.” And, regarding liability, the Ordinance provides that, “Patrons…may enter into private agreements with…producers or processors…to waive any liability for the consumption of that (local) food.”
According to a March 7, 2011 press release by Food for Maine’s Future, “Three other towns (Blue Hill, Brooksville, and Penobscot) in Western Hancock County will be voting on the ordinance …in the coming weeks.” Farmer, and head of Food for Maine’s Future, Bob St.Peter, is quoted, “This ordinance creates favorable conditions for beginning farmers and cottage-scale food processors to try out new products…It’s tough making a go of it in rural America…Small farmers and producers have been getting squeezed out in the name of food safety, yet it’s the industrial food that is causing food borne illness…” Also quoted was Mia Strong, of the Local Stock Food Cooperative in Sedgwick, saying, “I am so proud of my community. They made a stand for local food and our fundamental rights as citizens to choose that (local) food.”
Penobscot adopted a similar ordinance. The ordinance lost narrowly in Brooksville. According to a local paper, The Daily Packet, of February 24, 2011, the Town’s ordinance review committee did not recommend passage, citing, according to an ordinance advocate, that the ordinance would be “unenforceable” and “opens the town to potential liability issues and legal costs.” According to The Daily Packet of March 24, 2011, the town and ordinance supporters are engaged in debate as to the appropriateness and legality of the committee’s negative recommendation and whether the ordinance will again be put to a vote. Blue Hill will vote on the ordinance during April, 2011.
I asked small scale farmer and principal of Food for Maine’s Future, Bob St.Peter, about his motivation in creating the ordinance template. Admittedly, I expected him to cite the new federal Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in December 2010.
Instead, he cited a Maine “Poultry Slaughter and Processing…” regulation, which included a small scale grower/producer exemption. “A well intentioned exemption,” Bob allowed, but one that still required significant capital facility expenditures even on the part of the smallest scale farmers slaughtering fewer that 1,000 birds per year... one-at-a-time live-kill operators, for instance. It was the “scale inappropriate” Maine poultry exemption that motivated Bob, and his co-authors, Heather Retberg, of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, Deborah Evans, of Bagaduce View Farm in Brooksville, and Larissa Curlick, of East Blue Hill, to gather about farm house kitchen tables to pen the ordinance.
Bob said they vetted the ordinance through various community groups, including local Democratic and Republican organizations, thereby achieving bi-partisan support. Bob reckons that the ordinance will spur local, small scale farmers and processors to try new products. He mentioned a local woman’s new home-baked cookie subscription club and his own new canning project.
The Maine Tea Party web site includes a March 9, 2011 entry by Chris Dixon entitled, “Maine Town Declares Food Sovereignty. Nullifies Unconstitutional Laws”. In it he wrote, “…Sedgwick took an interesting step that brings a new dynamic to the movement to maintain sovereignty: town level nullification…the passed ordinance would make it unlawful for agents of either the State or Federal government to execute laws that interfere with the ordinance…The Food Sovereignty movement has been growing, as it gained a boost with the U.S. Senate Bill S 510: ‘The Food Safety Modernization Act’… Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming have introduced legislation that, if passed, would nullify federal laws that unconstitutionally affect food that does not cross state lines. Maine (Legislature) Representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) has also taken the lead in the (Maine) Legislature for food freedom…”
According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2009, of Hancock County’s estimated population of about 53,000, about 1,200 were engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. According to the Maine Farm Bureau, in 2002, Hancock County had about 300 farms, with an average size of 156 acres and an average annual income of about $90,000. Thus, the average farm in Hancock County is below the threshold provided in the Manager’s Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act. It provided that family farmers who direct market are exempt from certain food safety bill requirements if they earn less than $500,000 per year and sell locally, within a 275 mile radius of their farms or facilities.
The Sedgwick Ordinance relies on the accountability embodied in the direct relationships between local responsible producers and informed eaters. That, and Article VIII - Part Second “Municipal Home Rule” of the Maine Constitution. In Section 1, “Power of municipalities to amend their charters” it provides that, “The inhabitants of any municipality shall have the power to alter and amend their charters on all matters not prohibited by constitution or general law, which are local and municipal in character.”
Representative Walter Kumiega, of the Maine House of Representatives, sponsored “An Act to Exempt Farm Food Products and Homemade Food Offered for Sale or for Consumption at Certain Events from Certain Licensing Requirements.” While the bill contains provisions similar to those in the Sedgwick and Penobscot ordinances, it contains a provision that would enable the Maine Department of Agriculture Commissioner to, “detain, embargo or condemn…products…” of exempted farmers and food producers during the course of investigating an outbreak of foodborne illness related to their products. This last provision, however, would seem to violate the local Sedgwick and Penobscot ordinances.
While Hancock County towns, the State of Maine, and other states consider issues of local food sovereignty, the United States House of Representatives and Senate are squaring off on budget cuts, including cuts to the USDA and FDA budgets that could affect USDA meat and poultry inspections and FDA implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The proposed budget cuts, like the programs they would affect, lack scale appropriateness. USDA and FDA budget cuts are fiscally and philosophically driven. Philosophically, they are compatible with the less-government tenets of Tea Party supported House Republicans. Yet, they will affect all producers alike, including the small scale producers that the Tea Party sought to protect in its opposition to the Food Safety Modernization Act, even with Tester’s Amendment, and large scale producers, like those associated with the food borne illnesses that moved Congress to its bi-partisan adoption of the Food Safety Modernization Act. If there is less money to pay USDA inspectors, then slaughterhouses will not operate at capacity and both small and large scale producers will get less meat to market, which, because of their relative lack of economies of scale, likely will affect small producers to a greater extent than it will affect large producers.
Solutions that do not differentiate between the personal accountability intrinsic in small scale, local food production and consumption and the lack of it that is an inevitable consequence of the attenuated food chains associated with industrial scale food production are problems. In fact, the principles embodied in local food sovereignty ordinances, like Sedgwick’s, to the extent that they protect the relationships between small scale producers and the eaters who support them, and the Food Safety Modernization Act, to the extent that it protects eaters from the lapses of industrial scale producers, are both solutions.
Ed Yowell is a co--chair of the Food Systems Network NYC Leadership Committee. He is also a member of the Greenmarket Farmer and Community Advisory Committee, a Slow Food Regional Governor, and a member of the Slow Food NYC Board of Directors.