Maine farmer Dan Brown (right) at a demonstration opposing a state court case against him, last year, in Augusta, Maine. His case is part of a paper presented at a Yale conference on food sovereignty. I’ve been reading through academic papers being presented this weekend at a Yale University conference on food sovereignty. 

I’ve been learning some new terms from reading papers being presented at the conference. One term that rang a bell is ”the cunning state”–doesn’t that just sum up a lot of what is happening to small farms and food clubs in this country? The term was used in a paper about farmer rights in India, which some years ago enacted a milestone law that seemed to grant farmers power over their seeds….but somehow the Indian government lost its enthusiasm for following through on enforcement. 

Think about the Food Safety Modernization Act, which included an amendment to exempt many small farms from its most draconian requirements for lengthy food safety plans and such. Now, a couple years later, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration draws up the rules, well, that exemption seems to be watered down, not nearly as widely applicable as originally expected–apparently a victim of “the cunning state.” 

Another new word is “biopower.” It comes up in an intriguing assessment of Maine’s food sovereignty struggle over the last three years that has seen ten towns there and a number elsewhere in the U.S. pass ordinances allowing private food exchange, outside state and federal regulatory requirements. According to a paper that has as an author one of the Maine movement’s organizers, Heather Retberg, together with Hilda Kurtz and Bonnie Preston, “In the exertion of biopower, states (and other actors) manage population health through the use of vital statistics and other technologies.” In this scheme, “as new forms of knowledge and regimes of truth made population health knowable, biological experiences shaping individual and collective life, like dietary practices, became linked to the exercise of state power.”

That sure sounds familiar. As in the government interfering in our decisions about food choices. 

One of the key concepts that is important to appreciate in the food sovereignty struggle, the paper states, is that of scale. The paper about Maine “traces how the Maine food sovereignty activists use a politics of scale to face off against biopower as exercised through corporate influence over food and farm regulations… The concept of food sovereignty – democratic control of the food system, and the right of all people to define their own food systems implies a re-scaling of food production and trade regimes, away from industrial scale production for international trade to food systems organized at local and regional scales.”

The paper adds: “Food sovereignty registers opposition to the industrial/corporate management of vast and vastly simplified agricultural monocultures that systematically marginalize small and diversified farms.”

The paper traces the history and political path of the Maine food sovereignty movement, such as the legal case of farmer Dan Brown, adding details beyond what I provide in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights. I recommend reading the Maine paper, along with others (there are more than 80 being presented from around the world); I was pleased to see several papers at the conference cite as a source my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, as well as my previous book, The Raw Milk Revolution, and include them in their footnotes.)  

There’s also a neat paper from blogger Jill Richardson of Lavidalocavore, “examines the extent to which feelings that ones’ traditional foods and farming itself are ‘backwards,’ ‘primitive,’ or ‘low class’ undermine food sovereignty by driving people to adopt purchased (often nutritionally inferior) foods.” Kind of like how Americans were embarrassed and shamed into adopting margarine, homogenized milk, and TV dinners. 


Everyone loves a winner, it seems. Food Safety News actually devoted an entire article to covering Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger’s testimony this week about legislation to allow sales of raw milk directly from farms. Under the heading, “Wisconsin’s Most Famous Raw-Milk Advocate Opposes Bill Requiring Licensing”, Hershberger said he thought the licensing proposal was unnecessary for farmers like himself, who sell raw milk privately, directly to food club members. Hard to imagine his testimony getting so much attention absent the legal victory. 

Some of the most astute testimony came from Mark Kastel, head of Cornucopia, a Wisconsin organization that represents the interests of small organic farms. He noted that his group has as members farms that sell pasteurized and raw milk, and that the big-dairy opposition to the legislation “is a crass example of raw corporate lobby power versus individual rights.  The dairy industry versus family farmers. While the answer to economic development in Wisconsin, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has been to pump more money into the development of dairy CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations or ‘factory farms’) with deleterious impacts to the environment, quality of life for rural residents and ultimately economic viability for family-scale farmers, it is now fighting one of the brightest opportunities for dairy producers who want to operate on a family scale.  This is wrong.”

More about the testimony at the hearings in this media account. 


There’s still time to make plans to attend a fundraising event for Michigan hog farmer Mark Baker on Saturday. It is being held at Seven Sons Farm in Indiana–more details on this Facebook events page