Maine food rights activist Heather Retberg with her daughter CarolynAny politician worth his or her salt is good at charades–you know, the game where you pretend you are something that you’re not. 

Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, has given a masterful performance as a supporter of small farms since he was elected as a Republican in 2009. In September 2011, after receiving complaints from farmers about a crackdown by the state’s Department of Agriculture to end a decades-long tradition whereby Maine’s small farms were able to sell raw milk directly to friends and neighbors, without needing a dairy license, LePage wrote a memo questioning the crackdown. He expressed his support for legislation to restore the traditional practice.  (Dairies that want to advertise their raw milk, or sell via retail, need to obtain a license to sell raw milk.) 

During the legislative session just ending now, the Maine legislature passed a version of the legislation he said he supported in his 2011 memo, to allow raw milk sales of up to twenty gallons daily for unlicensed dairies. And suddenly, the governor seemed to vacillate, and as Deborah Evans notes in a comment following my previous post, he vetoed the legislation. 

Maine, of course, has been a hotbed of activity for food sovereignty, and ten towns have passed ordinances permitting direct food sales by local farmers to individuals, outside state and federal regulation. A state court recently struck down one of the ordinances. 

One of the original organizers of the food sovereignty initiative, along with Deborah Evans, has been Heather Retberg, a dairy farmer, and in her ongoing efforts to push state legislation to help small farms, she has gotten to know the governor. Yesterday, when he seemed to be vacillating on the raw milk legislation, she wrote him a letter expressing concerns, recalling an exchange her husband had with him when he was seeking votes.

“My husband asked you a question while you were campaigning…He asked what you might do to offer protection to farmers from the pressure of federal agencies. You interrupted him to say that you would personally show ‘the Feds’ to the border of the state of Maine. I was given to think after our meeting with you (last) January that your administration would offer strong support to small farms this session.”

Shortly after emailing the letter, she told me, “I got a very surprising phone call…from the governor! He told me he likes the bill and wants to make it work, but is still trying to work out a detail with the Department of Agriculture on the farmers market inclusion [allowing direct sales at farmers markets]. They are worried about the chain of custody of the milk at the markets, that another farm could be doing one farm a favor and selling milk or an apprentice or employee and not the farmer….I mentioned the track record in New Hampshire on this bill. He’d been given to understand that there IS a licensing requirement in New Hampshire on their raw milk exemption and that Maine’s law ‘goes further.’ He had plans to talk to folks in New Hampshire this afternoon or tomorrow so he can get this resolved…”

Since I spend a lot of time in New Hampshire, and sometimes buy raw milk at farmers markets, I knew that the governor’s information was wrong. Small dairies are allowed to sell up to twenty gallons of raw milk a day, without need of a license, either direct from the farm or at a farmers market.  I looked up the rules, and forwarded them to Retberg, who immediately sent them on to the governor. (The last paragraph of page 1 explains the exemption for small dairies, direct from the farm or at farmers markets.)

According to Retberg, the proposed Maine legislation actually went further than New Hampshire’s rules, since “our legislature added a testing requirement for milk ten times a year and water twice a year. After our conversation (with the governor) I was convinced the governor was looking for a way to sign this bill, but still had to work out the Department of Agriculture’s objections. He repeated his support for small farms, that he liked this bill, and he’d work on it and talk to folks in New Hampshire to find out more.” 

Late last night, the governor vetoed the legislation, saying in part, “I support the vast majority of changes to Maine law contained in this bill.” He was hung up, though, on the farmers market sales. He would support a revised version of the legislation to address the farmers market sales. “If farmers market sales are to remain, a mechanism to verify chain of custody must be included.” Huh?

The matter of “chain of custody” had never before come up before from the governor or anyone before yesterday, says Retberg. It was clearly an idea planted in his mind by his Department of Agriculture. 

What finally convinced Gov. LePage to veer away from signing the legislation? We’ll never know for sure, but his views definitely changed after he spoke with Retberg, and after he learned that New Hampshire has long done what Maine was proposing to do, with no ill effects or reports of problems.

He was probably convinced by the same things that convinced the governors of Wisconsin, California, and Nevada to veto raw milk legislation after overwhelming votes in favor by the legislatures–threats that it would cost them money, via federal grants to their states and/or contributions to their campaigns. Gov. LePage has just announced he is running for re-election. He must have made a calculated decision that any votes he’d lose from the raw milk/food sovereignty supporters could be made up for with the campaign contributions he’d keep by vetoing the legislation. 

The food rights movement is definitely learning its way through the ways of the political world. Maybe the lesson of these vetoes is that, when it comes to serious politics and decisions that affect corporate revenues, you have to pay to play.