With a stroke of his pen, Gov. Paul LePage last week enacted landmark legislation putting Maine in the forefront of the food sovereignty movement.

LePage signed LD 725, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, Friday legitimizing the authority of towns and communities to enact ordinances regulating local food distribution free from state regulatory control.

According to food sovereignty advocates, the law is the first of its kind in the country.

“This is a great day for rural economic development and the environmental and social wealth of rural communities,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop. “The Governor has signed into law a first-in-the-nation piece of landmark legislation [and] the state of Maine will [now] recognize, at last, the right of municipalities to regulate local food systems as they see fit.”

Sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, LD 725 does not include food grown or processed for wholesale or retail distribution outside of the community from which it comes.

Supporters of food sovereignty want local food producers to be exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food as long as the transactions are between the producers and the customers for home consumption or when the food is sold and consumed at community events such as church suppers.

“This is definitely a big deal,” Jackson said Monday. “This is going to allow small producers to become more engaged in the market and free enterprise.”

Hickman introduced similar legislation last year, but it was killed by the Senate. His bill would have made food sovereignty part of the Maine constitution by amendment.

For his part, Jackson credits the work done by Hickman in the past for getting the legislation enacted and said the bill’s emphasis on decreasing regulations for local food producers likely appealed to LePage.

“The governor is not a fan of red tape,” Jackson said.

LePage’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Hickman said. “Food sovereignty means the improved health and well-being of the people of Maine by reducing hunger and increasing food self-sufficiency through improved access to wholesome, nutritious and locally produced foods.”

To date, 20 municipalities in Maine have enacted food sovereignty ordinances, with Canton becoming the most recent last week.

“I think we are going to see a real groundswell of towns that will not even hesitate to pass [food sovereignty] ordinances because they now won’t have any problems with the state,” said Betsy Garrold, the acting executive director of Food for Maine’s Future. “Maine is that shining beacon on the hill [and] I have been in touch with friends across the country in the food sovereignty movement and they say we are doing it right.”

Garrold, who said she was fighting back tears of happiness on Monday with the news of the law’s enactment, said it is impossible to overstate its impact.

“This means face-to-face transactions are legal if your town has passed a food sovereignty ordinance [and] you can sell food without excessive government regulations,” she said. “If we can feed ourselves, no one can push us around.”

As word of the law spread over the weekend, Garrold said she has been fielding phone calls from people who want to get on board.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook with people from towns saying that now the law says they can [enact food sovereignty ordinances] they will do it,” she said. “It’s hard to say this early where it’s going to go, but we are figuring it out.”

Jesse Watson, owner of Midcoast Permaculture Design, helped craft language adopted as a resolution in Rockland supporting local food production, called Friday’s signing a huge win for the food sovereignty movement.

“We have always been focused on the municipal scale,” Watson said Monday. “The [food sovereignty] agenda — if you will — was never focused on changing state laws, it’s really about the authority of the municipality to produce for for itself.”

With enactment of LD 725, Watson anticipates that movement to speed up.

“This really clears the way for it to keep spreading from town to town to town,” he said.

Stressing that supporters of food sovereignty are not anti-safe food regulations, Garrold said the movement is about recognizing the one-size-fits-all model of costly regulations does not work when it comes to small farmers and producers.

“Now if a small vegetable farmer wants to diversify their holdings and run a few meat birds, they can,” she said. “It decreases one of the major hurdles of getting into farming.”

Given that Maine is the the only state in the country in which the average age of farmers is falling, Gerrold said it’s important to give those young farmers every advantage possible.

“This law will help young folks who want to start small and build,” she said. “They can get started selling face-to-face by selling the same food they are feeding their own families.”

That is a key point, Garrold said.

“We believe face-to-face transactions with your neighbors is safe and beneficial to both parties,” said Garrold, “They know you, you know them and, frankly, poisoning your neighbors is a very bad business plan.”

Hickman said he has heard equal parts disbelief and jubilation from food sovereignty supporters around the state and he predicted this is just the beginning.

“Today we import 90 percent of the food that we consume and too much of it is processed junk,” he said. “Many more towns will now take up consideration of [food sovereignty] ordinances as soon as they can.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.