By Heather Retberg

Heather Retberg is a Maine farmer, and one of the organizers of the Food Sovereignty movement that launched in Maine in 2009 and 2010, and has evolved into a national movement. Eight towns in Maine and an unknown number as far west as California have adopted Food Sovereignty ordinances that sanction private food transactions between farmers and citizens, independent of state and federal regulations. The state of Maine has challenged one of the ordinances in state court, in an effort to un-do all of them. In this guest post, she examines a key overlooked challenge for food rights advocates. 

Heather Retberg with her daughter, CarolynIn this era of expanding infringements on our food rights, our hands in the soil are necessary, but not sufficient. We all need to become students of history and pay close attention to language.  We need to study Depression era policies and populist movements, American-Revolution-era politics and the U.S. Constitution. 

We need to keep our eyes on the regulatory horizon.  Study the patterns that emerge and look for the parallel periods in our history and the places and times that have been foundational to our current system. 

The language of each time, and of our time, is of primary importance.  It defines what we do.  The governing agencies will attempt to define us differently than we define ourselves. Based on the language they are successful in instituting, they will determine what we can and cannot do.

Which words will we use to define ourselves?  Grassroots? Populist?  Libertarian?  Constitutionalist? Progressive?  Right or left?  This is about FOOD and communities.  Any and all these words are appropriate. We’re going to need all of us to feed all of us. 

Or will it be other words: hazardous white substance, potentially hazardous substance, handler, processor, facility, distributor, consumer, end product.  Or the words of another era, like bootlegging, dark parking lots, underground, speak-easys, prohibition. Illegal sounding words, almost subversive.  Very impersonal, detached verbiage, whatever those potentially hazardous and hazardous white substances may be. 

We must need handlers and distributors to get the “end product”.  And what end product comes from such hazardous or potentially hazardous white substances?  Don’t we use handlers for circus bears and training tigers? Handlers, or pimps, for prostitutes?  It’s all beginning to sound…criminal.

Well, here’s another set of words, no context, just words: sustainability, viability, survival, family-scale cottage production, milk, picking, growing, cultivating, cooking, patron, food.  What am I talking about now?

A whole different set of images comes to mind.  You all know this set of words describes farming, relationships, soil health, growing, cooking and selling food. 

Certainly this exercise is transparent to some degree, but the words are clear.  I’m defining what we do, how we live, how we interact. 

For the last three years, I’ve been engaged in the urgent and pressing work of understanding who else is defining me, other farmers, and our community, and what impact those definitions bear on my life at Quill’s End Farm with my family.   These definitions also impact the whole renewed system of feeding each other, and the impact on the many farmers and their patrons across our land. 

I’ve heard with increasing frequency farmers talking about “staying quiet”, or “just staying under the radar”, or “I’ll do it this way until I get caught”. I used to smile at this, even laugh.  I don’t any more.  Now it makes me very sad.  Because, of course, these ways of speaking about our work do make it sound like drug dealing.  Know any other honest profession that is just trying to “keep quiet” and “stay invisible”? 

Such language is entirely inappropriate to how we should be defining ourselves. Because if we define ourselves in terms of acting inappropriately, then we need to accept the implications of that.  If what we’re doing must remain hidden, “off the radar”, well, then, we must be doing something wrong. 

Think of how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S Department of Agriculture, and most states’ departments of agriculture define who we are and what we do.  We are food processors, handlers and distributors and we are dealing with hazardous and potentially hazardous substances.  

The hazardous white substance is what most of us call milk; “potentially” hazardous substances include meats, lard, cheese. 

At worst, this language transforms us into drug dealers and invokes predictable ‘enforcement’ measures.  At best, it means that us farmers, cooks and food-makers have become highly dangerous and the raw materials we produce and work with can only be handled by expert specialists.  If this is true, specialization comes at a cost and only a few will be deemed worthy.

Do these agencies have the right to define us? Or do we? Are we then willing to stand up for our true identity?