Maine's food sovereignty laws allow communities to craft ordinances for direct exchange of produce and food between farmer and consumer. Credit: Steven Valenti | AP

Since becoming law a year ago, the number of Maine towns and small communities with a food sovereignty ordinance has grown to more than 40. And according to those behind the movement, it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

The legislation, which was signed into law last October, allows municipalities to regulate local food systems, including production, processing, consumption and direct producer-to-consumer exchanges. This type of commerce had been regulated at the state and federal level, which continues to regulate meat and poultry production and sales.

No official data are being collected on the towns adopting the ordinance, but last week Augusta became the latest municipality in the state to pass an ordinance based on the sovereignty law, joining the dozens of municipalities including Auburn, Machias, Blue Hill, Rockland, Chapman and York.

Common sense policy

“We are so much farther along than where I could have imagined we would be,” Heather Retberg, food sovereignty advocate, said. “Once the threat of state pre-emption was removed, so many towns were just ready to put this common sense food policy into place. I just couldn’t have possibly known how many people there were across the state just waiting.”

Spring is the traditional town meeting season in Maine and was was especially busy, Retberg said, with up to four towns adopting food sovereignty ordinances in a single week.

That success, Retberg said, is due largely to grass-roots, community-level efforts.

“The expression of food sovereignty in Maine has been from the bottom up,” she said. “It has spread horizontally from one town or city to another across counties [and] gained strength as it went.”

With more than 500 municipalities in the state, Retberg is confident it will keep spreading.

“Wherever people are willing to engage with their local governments and their neighbors, wherever people care about regenerative agriculture and economies based on ecological stewardship principles, wherever people want access to good food from farms in their own community, there is potential for engagement and the spread of this articulation of food sovereignty,” she said.

Fellow food sovereignty advocate Jesse Watson agrees.

Watson was a key player in writing and assuring the passage of a food sovereignty ordinance in Rockland.

“I am super pleased with where we are,” Watson said. “There is such a momentum behind [food sovereignty] and people are excited and starting to talk to their neighbors about passing these ordinances in a greater number of towns.”

As far as Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is concerned, the law is doing exactly as intended. Jackson, along with Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, co-sponsored the food sovereignty legislation signed into law.

“It’s really doing what we had hoped it would do,” Jackson said. “It’s spurring interest from small growers and producers and creating an economy for them. I believe as more people understand the process and what food sovereignty means, more towns are going to adopt the ordinance.”

A boon for small business

In Greenwood, population 800, the ordinance is acting as a sort of small business incubator, according to Suzanne Dunham of Dunham Farms and Velvet Hollow Sugar Works in Greenwood. She and her husband Brian also manage the Greenwood Farmers Market.

“Our area is rural with a heavy reliance on tourism in winter and summer,” Dunham said. “Like a lot of Maine communities, many [people] in Greenwood cobble together a way to make a living, and we find ways to help each other in times of need.”

Before passage of the food sovereignty ordinance made the licensing moot, the Dunhams were fully licensed by the state to operate their home-based baking and honey business.

“Many others in our community didn’t have the economic means to go through licensing,” she said

Now, thanks to the ordinance the town passed last June, that obstacle has been removed.

“Greenwood’s food sovereignty ordinance allows me to make pies and other baked goods in my home kitchen and sell them directly to customers without having to be licensed by the state,” Greenwood resident Amy Chapman, who runs Amy’s Bakehouse out of her home, said. “Since I have several other part-time jobs and baking is only a small part of what I do, it would not be worth my time, money and energy to do it for a weekly farmers market if I had to go through the state’s process to become a licensed producer.”

At the same time, through dealing directly with her customers, Chapman said she can maintain a one-on-one relationship with them.

“They are able to ask questions about the ingredients I use,” she said. “They feel comfortable about the quality of my products.”

It’s the same for Michelle Shutty and her small home-based Greenwood Bean coffee roasting business.

“Without the Greenwood Food Sovereignty ordinance, my small coffee roasting business may have never gotten off the ground,” Shutty said. “The ordinance gave me a chance to quickly and easily introduce my product to customers in my community at the local farmers market and allowed me to determine that there was enough demand and interest to warrant starting the business, before putting forth the effort of getting licensed.”

That is exactly what Jackson envisioned for the law.

“A lot of people can’t take the chance on doing something they wanted to do because they found it too onerous or costly to become licensed under state or federal regulations,” Jackson said. “I think people who have a product will now take more of a chance and actually do something to create a small business.”

Thanks to the success of her coffee, Shutty took the step to become a state-licensed mobile vendor.

“I probably wouldn’t have made that leap without the ordinance,” she said. “Being able to process at home and sell at the farmers market using Greenwood’s [food sovereignty ordinance] helped me figure out if I’d have that customer base.”

Out of the barns and into the light

Neighbors selling to neighbors has been going on for generations in Maine, but for all that time growers and producers not licensed by the state were forced to conduct business out of the public eye and only with trusted, known customers.

“I was talking to a goat farmer the other day who was telling me all of her excess goat’s milk was going to her pigs,” Watson said. “That’s a good way to recycle nutrients, but crazy that good food is essentially going to waste and not going toward direct human nutrition.”

The farmer in question does not live in a town that has a food sovereignty ordinance, Watson said, so is prevented from legally selling her milk to customers.

“Food sovereignty [ordinances] would make that kind of interaction seamless and elegant,” Watson said. “That sort of business can come into the light of day and producers don’t need to be paranoid about getting caught.”

That, Retberg said, is the core of food sovereignty.

“It’s when the people who eat the food and the people who grow the food are the decision makers about their own food supply,” Retberg said. “Food sovereignty prioritizes local economies and markets and strengthens family farmer-driven agriculture and the traditional foodways between farmers and their patrons in their own communities.”

The ordinance, Watson said, guarantee those rights that have been around for generations.

“It’s really very traditional what we are doing,” Watson said. “It’s the [licensing] laws that are weird.”

Which is why Retberg and others in the food sovereignty movement were so committed to getting the law passed in the first place and keeping the momentum going.

Local decision making

“It is hard to believe that what started around our kitchen table with a conviction that we had to try something to legally protect small-scale farming and all the resulting relationships we have in our community could result in people moving to this state or moving to our town and neighboring towns,” Retberg said. “One of the most heartening things that I hear about are the stories of people who have now started feeding their neighbors from their farms and kitchens again and of people moving to Maine or from one region in Maine to another because of the strong support in the state or in particular counties for local food production in places where towns are willing to enact food sovereignty.”

In the last year Retberg and Watson said they have heard stories from people living in towns that have enacted the ordinance.

“I’ve gotten to hear how people are getting engaged with town government, learning more about participatory democracy,” Retberg said. “It’s real now. [People] can feed themselves and their neighbors [and] growing their food and farm enterprises toward greater economic reliance one farmer, one baker, one jam kitchen at a time.”

Watson applauds the success the ordinance has had over the last year but also recognizes there is more to be done.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “My vision is for a [Maine] food system completely redesigned and decentralized with food production an honorably accepted part of our culture with the rights of [food sovereignty] legally guarded.”

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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.