The scene outside Halcyon Grange #345 on a rural road in tiny Blue Hill, Maine, is one that has been played out countless times over the past couple centuries. As darkness set in, a couple of men, volunteers, were carving up a pig that had been roasting on a large grill for the previous day. The pig had been donated by an area farmer, who slaughtered the animal, and brought it to the Grange hall for the roasting.
Now, on this Saturday evening, the men in charge of the roasting collected meat from the animal and put it into pans for a community dinner. As they completed their carving, they picked scraps off a few bones that they tossed into their own mouths. Then, they threw the bones to a couple of eagerly waiting dogs.
As the 100-plus guests in the Grange hall enjoyed the delicious pork, along with beans baked in the ground and fresh cole slaw, topped off by home-made apple and pumpkin pies made by other volunteers, I couldnt help but marvel that that traditional scene had come off seemingly routinely, without any attention to special licenses or inspections. Just some farmers and other members of the community sharing food with friends and neighbors. (The Grange just posted a summary of Saturday’s event.)
In a talk I gave following the dinner, I pointed out that in other parts of the country, there are pressures to regulate such events as Grange dinners, church suppers, school bake sales, even lemonade stands….not to mention food clubs and herdshares that distribute raw milk. There have been some unpleasant encounters as a result, such as public health inspectors nearly wrecking an in-the-field meal at a Nevada farm in 2011.
But I was in food sovereignty territory–Blue Hill (together with nine nearby towns) has a food sovereignty ordinance that in effect legitimizes the private distribution and sale of food from local farms and other food producers directly to individuals. The ordinances shook the food-regulation establishment from Maine down to Washington when they first appeared on the scene in 2011. Eventually, the state would file suit against a one-cow Blue Hill farmer, Dan Brown, seeking to bar him from selling raw milk and other foods, and in effect invalidate the ordinances passed by all the towns. A judge ruled in favor of the state, but Brown, represented by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, has appealed.
Yet food sovereignty supporters pressed on, pushing for a state-wide food sovereignty law in the Maine legislature last spring and summer. That didnt pass, but something pretty close did pass. At the Grange dinner on Saturday evening, food sovereignty organizer Heather Retberg announced to the crowd that Maines newly reorganized agriculture department–The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry–was mandated by the legislature to encourage food self sufficiency for its citizens.
The new department was told to Promote self-reliance and personal responsibility by ensuring the ability of individuals, families and other entities to prepare, process, advertise and sell foods directly to customers intended solely for consumption by the customers or their families.
In its use of language similar to that included in the local food-sovereignty ordinances, Maines legislature seems to have taken farmer Dan Brown off the hook, and opened the department to legal challenge should it engage in similar overreach.
The persistence of Maines food-sovereignty activists seems to have paid off, and should be instructive elsewhere. Even in Nevada, the 2011 outrage at Laura Bledsoes farm led to ongoing activism that resulted in passage of legislation sanctioning farm-to-fork events. I know, such traditional events shouldnt have to be sanctioned, but in our land of regulator overreach, local communities must, unfortunately, fight to reclaim such rights.
The expanding tide of food sovereignty could well run up against the brick wall of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) before too long. It was passed nearly three years ago, and so has been nearly forgotten by farmers and consumers alike.
But the bureaucrats haven’t forgotten. The FDA has been using all that time to ramp up for full enforcement, beginning next year. The FDA isnt known for its sensitivity and deference to farmer experience and knowledge, so the new enforcement may well not be pretty
Blogger Brian Snyder put together a perceptive analysis on how it all could shake out. He worries about unfettered enforcement of vague regulations based on outdated science.
I wouldnt be surprised if we see a food sovereignty ordinance tested legally against the FSMA.