Heather Retberg (photo by Nancy Segari)

Eight years ago, a handful of Maine food activists launched an improbable campaign for food sovereignty. The idea was to re-frame scale-inappropriate state and federal regulations on small food producers by working with local governments in towns to pass ordinances regulating local food within local borders. The campaign began painfully slowly with a very few coastal towns, where the activists lived and farmed. Over the last year, though, the campaign has picked up new momentum, to the point where more than three dozen towns have passed food sovereignty ordinances. I recently inquired with Heather Retberg, one of the leaders of the Maine movement and owner of her own Quill’s End Farm, about how and why the movement is gathering steam during this time of extreme divisiveness in so many areas of American politics, including food and agriculture. 

Q: Heather, please update us on the current state of the Maine food sovereignty movement.

A: We’ve been overwhelmed with the interest and momentum over the last year since the Maine Food Sovereignty Act was enacted by the legislature and governor. In just one year, the number of towns adopting the Local Food and Community Self-Governrance Ordinance (LFCSGO) has doubled!  Since June of 2017, when twenty towns had asserted food sovereignty, 41 towns have now adopted local rules for local food with another handful still pending.

Q: Why the sudden shift in momentum?

June 16th marked the one year anniversary of the governor signing the Maine Food Sovereignty Act into law. It requires the state to recognize local ordinances governing the direct exchange of food from producer to consumer.  Just a year ago, twenty towns had adopted local rules for local food, using the template formulated right here at Quill’s End Farm around my family’s kitchen table. Those first towns took a risk in our assertion of food sovereignty. The state had, for the previous seven years, refused to recognize the local ordinances threatening preemption and lawsuits.  With the governor’s signature, the law opened the door for hesitant communities to adopt the LFCSGO if their town or city voted to do so.

Q: What convinced the legislature and the governor to come around to accepting food sovereignty, after opposing it so vehemently for so long?

A: Each legislative session corresponded with town meeting season in Maine.  And each town meeting season, another two or three towns, some years five or six towns, would adopt the LFCSGO.  The towns became more widespread, encompassing more legislative districts. So, each legislative session there were more advocates on the ground in touch with their legislators and there was more legislative awareness and support.

And, those of us who have been working on it since the beginning just wouldn’t give up.  We kept coming back and pressing.  We learned better how the system worked and we had some staunch, dedicated legislative allies who were also not going to give up.

The governor had supported the concept of food sovereignty since 2013, but the political will needed to grow to counter the food industry lobbyist power and influence under the dome in Augusta was missing.  We changed our strategy in 2017, working closely with Sen. Jackson, the minority leader in the Senate.  Rep. Craig Hickman and I worked relentlessly on language to win support in the Senate to clarify the misinformation and confusion created by the food lobbies. All the while, food sovereignty advocates around the state were contacting their senators and weighing in, pressing for support.  We got two small-farm lobbyists working to help us in the halls.   When it passed unanimously in the Senate, we had the momentum needed to carry it well past a veto-proof majority in the House as well.  It was an uphill battle every step of the way, but…each year there were more of us and each year we were stronger, had learned more, and were gaining the respect of legislators and even our opponents.

Q: How has this shift affected the political groundwork you’ve needed to mobilize over the last eight years?

A: I don’t need to travel to as many towns anymore to offer support and resources or experience to answer questions as they arise at public hearings and town meetings. I do still go to some where it is beneficial or especially meaningful because of their process. As one example, Rockland, a city of about 7,000 people, worked on passage for two years, sending a local delegate to Augusta to support the state law’s passage and then returning to the city council. They took our ordinance, re-drafted, revised and merged.  They had first readings, second readings, agenda setting meetings, and then final readings, more public hearings and…a council vote.  In the end, with the careful, patient work of a few very dedicated advocates there, the city council vote was unanimously in favor!   Now, I often spend more time in conversations with folks and, my favorite thing to do is to refer people in a community considering the LFCSGO to someone in a closer-by town which has just adopted local food rules—THAT is a new possibility.

Q: Have the food sovereignty ordinances had any positive effect on encouraging local farming and local food consumption that you are aware of?

A: This has been truly moving this past town meeting season.  Before, even with the passage of a local ordinance in their town, sometimes farmers still felt they needed to operate ‘off-radar’ as the state refused to recognize the local laws.  Once the MFSA was enacted, I heard from a small farmer in western Maine jubilant to finally put up a sign, to be visible.  In Montville, there was a small goat farmer who had been feeding her surplus milk to her chickens instead of selling it to her neighbors who had inquired. Her children have both gone to a nearby community college and studied sustainable ag.  Now, the family feels there is room to legally operate and make it into a bonafide business that the younger generation could grow and run. In nearby Bucksport, a woman with one cow was delighted to be able to sell the surplus milk she produces to neighbors.  Vegetable farmers in Lebanon could similarly diversify their vegetable farm and value-add, as well as selling milk from their one cow.  In Orland, a baker with disabilities that prevented her from operating at a scale where she could license her home kitchen, advocated for enacting the LFCSGO. Now, she can take on as many or as few orders as works well for her side business and grow it at her own pace, or keep it steady if that works better.  There are more stories, a few more people moving to Maine on account of the warmth and openness of food sovereignty communities.  But, by and large, the simple act of being able to visibly farm and openly, transparently conduct business has been heartening from Aroostook to York Counties (pretty much north to south in Maine).

Q: You have certainly gotten to attend a lot of town meetings. What have you learned about the issues that matter to people these days?

A: I get to learn about a lot of topics of interest or vital importance to the town or city while waiting. Rockland is currently thinking about cruise ships in their harbor and how much business is good business and how or if to regulate their visits. Whoo-boy is this contentious, more so than you might imagine.

In Orland, which adopted the local food ordinance in June, yard sales were on their town meeting agenda. Townsfolk there forewarned us to expect heated debate. I had no idea why or what or wherefore. We would learn, however, that some townspeople there have big messes in their yards called ‘yard sales’ that never get put away. This is a problem for others in the town. Others have yard sales many weekends in a row and traffic lines the roads, also creating concern for others in the town. Whoo-boy is this contentious, too—more so than you might imagine.

Whether yard sales or cruise ships, mandated sprinkler systems, sewer system updates, trash recycling, or local food and farming, town meeting is where we deal with the essential question of how we, collectively, want to live with each other in community. We don’t, collectively, always agree. But, it is where about 10% of us gather to decide the fundamental question of: Who decides?  What kinds of relationships do we want to have with each other? And, how do we encode that into law?  Who are we as a community?

In Rockland, they answered that last question by carefully considering that no, they were not Bar Harbor, and would not become a town of trinkets and kitsch, but could and should proceed cautiously, later, on deciding just how many cruise ships to allow and of what size and type. In Orland, they decided by a close margin that they would not limit their neighbors to only three yard sales per year with a special town permit and potential fines for leftover messes. Both Rockland and Orland decided by overwhelming consensus that they didwant to enact a law to support local food and farming.

Q: How do you explain your ability to achieve accommodation and compromise on food sovereignty during a time of seemingly endless political polarization at all levels of politics?

A: Briefly, we kept it human. Rep. Ralph Chapman, early on, encouraged us to keep our friends close but our ‘enemies’ closer.  I refused to look at our policy opponents as ‘enemies’ or ‘the other’.  They had a job to do, they believed a certain way for their own reasons, motivations, etc.

But, the system needed to change. We couldn’t ‘go along to get along’. We desperately need(ed) to de-centralize the decision-making around food and farming.  But, we didn’t need to attack the individuals to change the system. No name-calling, no vitriol.

So, I often sat next to Department of Ag officials during public hearings and work sessions.  We’d talk, shake our heads over some of the same ludicrous developments.  When the committees would conference behind closed doors, we’d talk about our family, college decisions and more.   Over the years, we sat down with specialty cheese-makers who opposed us, who had been so red-in-the-face-mad they wouldn’t even look at us.  We sat down over a meal, we talked, we didn’t agree (mostly on where we are), but we could agree on some ways to move forward. We needed to confront the system, but not for the sake of argument, or of our rightness, but for the necessity of transformation.

Transformational conflict is not something to shy away from, but it is also no reason to be ugly. The amendment process was a long, intense day when the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry was wrangling right along with us on how to properly amend the Maine Food Sovereignty Act under USDA threat of take-over of Maine’s meat inspection.

That day, the acting director of the Quality Assurance and Regulation division, the same man who had threatened years before to refer our farm to the attorney general, cheered with me, beside me, when the ACF Committee unanimously passed the amendment.  He reached over and shook my hand and said, ‘congratulations, you did it!’.  That is transformational confrontation.  A moment both of us were glad to reach.  And… that changed the system so he no longer needed to be a policy adversary, and all the while community governance of local food could grow.

Q: Finally, given your ability to mobilize support from both the left and the right for this hugely important issue, and win respect around the state, have you given any consideration to seeking public office?

A: Consideration, yes.  But…not for too long.  There is too much work to do out here in our communities.  Oftentimes, just when people have figured out how to serve their families and truly benefit their own communities, they are selected for greater spheres of influence before the time when it will really be beneficial.  Since our children were small, I have always believed that a family is a society in embryo and that we grow strong societies by cultivating strong families, then strong neighborhoods, then strong communities. While we need to keep engaged on legislative levels, it is increasingly important to build up what we want to see in our own towns and let that spread and grow.  That is resilience.  Then, if policy doesn’t go the way of helping people, people have learned to help people. We have structures in place. What good is legislative ‘power’ if the farm goes fallow?  Or, political battle without the building of what we need? We doneed good policy, so our home and community spheres of influence don’t become too small or constricting.  For now, I think I can do the most good from the outside of those ‘halls of power’, by working with people to use the power they have for good where they are.