It’s been nearly seven years since I first met farmer Heather Retberg in Maine and learned about her crazy idea for restoring something called “Food Sovereignty” to the small coastal communities where she and her supporters lived.
Over the years that followed, Retberg and her “musketeers” helped organize 20 communities to pass food sovereignty ordinances, which allow local food producers to sell directly to residents, without interference from state and federal regulation. A key component of the food sovereignty push is to allow small farms to sell raw milk directly to members of their local communities.
The only people who didn’t care for this new brand of food sovereignty were state regulators. Maybe they saw it as a threat to their authority or even to their jobs.
At the behest of the regulators, the state took action against a farmer in one of the towns that passed a food sovereignty ordinance, Dan Brown, citing him for selling raw milk and other food without a license. The case went all the way to the Maine Supreme Court, where the justices in 2014 ruled against the farmer, and against the ordinances at the same time. They suggested that it was up to the state legislature to legalize Food Sovereignty.
As dark a time as that seemed, Retberg and her supporters didn’t give up. They kept doing what they had been doing organizing towns to pass food sovereignty ordinances and made believe the Maine Supreme Court ruling didn’t exist. They aggressively lobbied the state legislature to allow local food to be sold locally without state and federal regulation, which often adds huge costs to meet the rules.
In the meantime, the state held off on enforcing the Maine Supreme Court ruling.
Getting the powers that be to come around over the past seven years was a slow cumbersome process. In 2013 the legislature passed a law allowing continuation of an informal tradition whereby small farms could carry out direct sales of raw milk to friends and neighbors, only to have Gov. Paul LePage veto the legislation, seemingly after he had agreed to go along with it.
So when the food sovereignty legislation passed this year, another veto by the same governor, LePage, seemed likely. Lo and behold, the governor signed the legislation this time.
The success of the food sovereignty legislation is testimony to a few things: First, there’s the power of persistence. Whatever it is that large numbers of local citizens want to see enacted doesn’t usually get enacted the first time around in the legislature, no matter how good the ideas are.
Second, we are reminded that our lawmakers at the local level are often much more responsive to the popular will than those at the national level. You look at what’s been happening with unsuccessful efforts to impose federal restrictions on genetically modified food (GMO), despite the backing of many thousands of ordinary citizens, and you see what I mean.
Finally, it’s a reminder, in this time of ever-more-arbitrary decision-making in Washington, of the growing importance of local rule. We’ve seen a number of localities become “sanctuary cities” to help their immigrants avoid being deported, and states become more engaged with other countries to oppose the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Thus, we had the amazing image last month of California’s governor sitting with the president of China to reaffirm the state’s support, with China, of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Retberg is not one to seek out the limelight—indeed, she is quite humble about her role, and more than glad to share the results of her successful leadership with others. Her focus, even after the recent Maine legislative success, is to keep on trucking, as she said on Facebook a few days ago: “Let me know, friends, if you are considering adoption of the Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance in your town. The ground is really swelling right now–it’s a good time to engage in your local government and work towards policy that makes sense right in your own community.”
Congrats to Heather Retberg and her “musketeers” for persisting in their push for food sovereignty, and demonstrating that old-fashioned organizing and lobbying can still work on behalf of the community at large.