With a unanimous vote on Monday, the Rockland City Council passed a local food ordinance making the city food sovereign and paving the way for local growers and producers to sell some food free of state or federal regulations.

With a unanimous vote earlier this week, the Rockland City Council approved the state’s 33rd food sovereignty ordinance, and became the first county seat to become food sovereign.

“It just makes sense,” said City Councilor Adam Ackor. “I don’t know if it will have a great immediate impact [on Rockland] but in the long term it will help develop our agricultural base.”

At its meeting on Monday, the council voted 5-0 to pass the ordinance, which applies to local food produced in homes and on farms or sold from farmers’ markets and community events like public suppers.

In February 2017 the council stopped short of approving the ordinance, and instead opted to adopt a compromise non-binding resolve proposed by Ackor affirming the city’s support of the local exchange of seeds and locally grown or produced food.

At the time, city leaders were concerned with approving any ordinance that was not backed by state law.

That all changed in October when Gov. Paul LePage signed into law an amended state food sovereignty bill that allows municipalities to regulate local food systems, including production, processing, consumption and direct producer-to-consumer exchanges, which were previously regulated at the state and federal level but excludes meat and poultry production and sales, which remain under state and federal control.

“I just feel super positive about this,” said Jesse Watson, who crafted Rockland’s ordinance. “It took two years of me meeting with counselors, developing a relationship with the council and learning the ordinance process [and] this is a big victory for a resilient food system in Rockland.”

For Ackor, the ordinance takes Rockland back to its farming roots.

“The way I feel about it, Rockland has an agricultural past which was a pretty strong and significant part of how it grew over the decades,” Ackor said. “Currently, we don’t have much of an agricultural presence within our city limits.”

The councilor hopes the ordinance can turn that around.

“With the resurgence of small farms and locally grown organic produce and smaller ‘micro businesses’ cropping up all over the state, it make sense for [Rockland] to demonstrate our commitment to encouraging and facilitating small farm operations and creative ways to provide produce and food within the city.”

It’s an issue, Watson said, that effects everyone.

“Everybody eats and everybody understands that these food sovereignty ordinances are about cultivating food systems,” he said.

The ordinance comes down to local control over that food system, Watson said.

“It’s about the concept of food production and small scale transactions between neighbors in commonly understood practices like farm stands or farmers markets,” Watson said. “This ordinance fully codifies those transactions and protects those who are undertaking them.”

Not everyone in the state is a fan of food sovereignty. Officials at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry went on record earlier this year in support of locally produced food but not food free of state or federal regulations.

“We have a good food system with basic, fundamental laws,” Ron Dyer, the department’s Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources Bureau director, told the BDN in March. “Our job is to protect Maine people and the Maine brand and there is a lot of risk if something goes wrong [and] we are hoping the towns that do approve the food sovereignty ordinances will do something to protect food safety.”

Ackor is confident Rockland’s growers and producers will sell safe food, despite moving away from state regulatory control.

“I don’t believe food sovereignty will put anyone at risk,” he said. “Everybody should understand that there is an implied trust in the producer to do a good job and trust that the consumer will do their due diligence as well.”

Watson pointed out that state and federal controls is not always a guarantee of food safety, noting recent national food recalls of lettuce and eggs due to outbreaks of E.coli and salmonella.

“The [Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] wants to critique this ordinance on the basis of food safety and the idea that food sovereignty will make the food system less safe, but that does not hold up to close scrutiny,” Watson said. “Look at the lettuce and egg recalls that are huge and made hundreds of people sick — I got news for you, the food is already unsafe.”

By dealing with neighbors and food supplied on the local level, Watson said consumers know exactly where that food is coming from and see for themselves if it is produced in a safe manner.

“This ordinance is a victory on that front,” Watson said. “We now have the authority to decide for ourselves and don’t need Augusta or Washington DC to tell us who can produce food and who can sell it to our neighbors.”

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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.