Maine food rights activists Liz Solet, Deborah Evans, Larissa Curlik, Heather Retberg, and Kevin Ross.There’s an uprising brewing in Maine over food rights. Like in other parts of the country, it started with regulator interference in a traditional part of small-farm life.

Heather Retberg, who with her husband runs a small farm in the coastal communmity of Penobscott, had built up a nice little business selling chickens to neighbors. She slaughtered the chickens at a neighbor’s regulator-approved facility for producers of less than 1,000 chickens annually.

But then last year, the Maine Department of Agriculture suddenly changed the rules covering farmers with less than 1,000 chickens, requiring that each farm have its own facility. There was an outcry around the state, and eventually the legislature reinstated the 1,000-chicken exemption…but in implementing the exemption, the MDA kept key obstacles in effect.  Bottom line, Retberg was still prohibited from slaughtering the chickens at her neighbor’s and told she needed to construct her own $30,000 facility, or else have the chickens slaughtered at an approved facility many miles from her farm–all prohibitively expensive.

So she exited the chicken business, determined to focus more on her farm’s raw milk business, selling privately to a few neighbors. This year, the Maine Department of Agriculture sent out notices to numerous such small dairies, warning them they needed a special Maine permit to sell raw milk from the farm under any circumstances. Complying would require many additional thousand of dollars of facilities upgrades.

Not surprisingly, Retberg has soured on trying to make changes via the legislature and regulators. She’s joined forces with four of her neighbors who were active in fighting the chicken slaughtering problems, and they’ve decided on a completely different tack. They are each petitioning their towns to pass ordinances that will give local small farms special breaks.

I met the five on Sunday, when they attended my talk at the Common Ground Country Fair, and presented me with a special t-shirt that says on the back, “Raw Milk Liberation Front”. (They’re wearing the t-shirts in the photo above.)

The key element in the proposed ordinances is protection of “direct farmer/grower/processor-to-customer sales from unnecessary regulation.” It states: “So long as there is one willing seller and one willing buyer, the producer or processor of local foods is exempt from federal or state permitting, certification or licensure. The one-on-one private contract between the local farmer/processor and their local customer provides sufficient oversight through the customer’s interest in and knowledge of how the food is raised, harvested, and prepared, and the farmer/processor’s honesty and integrity.”

There are other items in their proposal, including protection of bean suppers, bake sales, and traveling food fund raisers that have come under public health regulator attack; expansion of agri-tourism; and a requirement that everyone who sells directly to consumers label their products, “including their name, address, ingredient list and the date the product was prepared” to “provide accountability, traceability and transparency…”

The Five Musketeers have begun having discussions with their selectmen with a view toward getting their proposals considered during the winter and spring town meeting season in New England, when small towns traditionally take up new ordinance proposals. So far, the reactions have been encouraging, they say. A typical response has been disbelief that chicken and bake sales are under attack. “Our biggest advantage will be to go to our friends in each of our towns” to encourage support, says Deborah Evans, one of the five.

Might there be a conflict between their proposed ordinances and state and federal laws and regulations? The five don’t believe so, since they see themselves focused on protecting private sales between farmers and consumers, outside the authority of regulators. They’ve even developed a “Declaration of Food Freedom” that states in part, that the petition signer believes “that my access to farm raised food should be unfettered and free of one-size-fits-all regulations formed at federal levels and enforced by the state.”

Sounds like they’ve been reading the comments of Dave Milano, Milk Farmer, and others on this blog…and indeed, they have, and say they’ve gotten part of their inspiration from the commentary here. I wish them luck. This is about as grass roots as it gets.