The Saga of Food Sovereignty in Maine

Nikki Sekara, Betsy Garrold, Heather Retberg and Bonnie Preston at the Maine State Legislature on the day the Food Sovereignty Act was written.

Nikki Sekara, Betsy Garrold, Heather Retberg and Bonnie Preston at the Maine State Legislature on the day the Food Sovereignty Act was written.

In 2009 the inspector from the Maine Department of Agriculture, which had suddenly and internally changed their definition of milk distributors, walked down the wrong farm driveway. Two wrong driveways actually but that is the other part of the story. The Retbergs, Heather and Phil, had just built their farm business up enough that Phil could quit his off-farm job as a carpenter and they thought, with their dairy and their meat bird production, that they could make a go of it on their farm income, supporting themselves and their three children while feeding their friends and neighbors good wholesome food. What they were told was that they could no longer share their farmer neighbor’s poultry slaughter facility and they would be classified as a milk distributor because they had a sign at the end of their driveway saying they sold raw milk.

My small organization Food for Maine’s Future, then run by Bob St. Peter, met with the Retbergs (actually they were friends already and this speaks to the power of community which is such an integral part of the food sovereignty movement) and it was decided that grassroots action was going to be the most effective. They wrote and got passed in several surrounding towns the Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance. This is a rights based ordinance founded on the Maine constitution’s Home Rule provision and on the work done by the water sovereignty activists in western Maine battling with Nestle to protect their ground water.

The other “wrong driveway” was that of Craig Hickman, farmer, legislator, all around great guy. Craig and his husband Jop run a small farm and B&B in Winthrop and when the state inspectors told him he had to stop using his extra goat’s milk to make yogurt to sell in his farm stand his response was to run for the legislature. He became chair of the Agriculture committee and is one of the leading lights in our movement.

Shortly after the ordinances started passing in town after town the department of Agriculture decided to make a test case out of a guy, we called him Farmer Brown, milking one cow and selling it from his farm stand and at the farmer’s market in his town. The district court ruled against him, saying “milk is not food and therefore not covered by the Ordinance.” We took it all the way to the Maine Supreme Court, who ruled against Farmer Brown, but carefully avoided negating the Ordinance. They did not want to mess with the home-rule constitutional issue.

All this time we were going to Augusta, trying to get the Ordinance applicable statewide. And failing. But attracting more and more attention for our work and more and more supporters. And we were increasing the number of towns which had passed the ordinance. Maine has a town meeting form of municipal governance and these ordinances were passing unanimously in these meetings. People get it. Neighbors feeding neighbors is not only good for the local economy but also good for healthy strong people and healthy strong communities. We kept getting our bills all the way to the governor’s desk but could not quite muster the votes to override his repeated vetoes. One victory we did have, early on, was getting the 1000 bird poultry slaughter exemption passed allowing small farmers to raise and process meat birds at their own farms. More about meat later.

So once again we shifted strategies. We decided to attempt to pass a state constitutional amendment that stated people had the right to food of their choosing. A measure not subject to a gubernatorial veto. Now when we get these grandiose ideas we know we do not have the money to go up against the grocery manufacturers lobby or the dairy lobby head to head, dollar for dollar. We have had some good financial support, most notably from Farm-to-Consumer-Legal-Defense-Fund who finances our very part-time lobbyist, and from local co-operatives including Fedco Seeds and the Belfast Co-op. But we need people power to win. On the day of the amendment vote we planned a rally. Joel Salatin even flew up to Maine to testify. It was very well attended for a chilly April day.

The real power we have is what we like to call “muddy boots in the halls of power”. We can’t turn out the numbers that the NRA does when there are gun bills getting heard at the capitol but we can turn out 100-200 people to testify on our big bills. In a state of 1.3 million people that has an impact on our legislators. Plus we have several stalwart advocates in the legislature: Craig, Ralph Chapman, Troy Jackson, Michelle Dunphy, and a handful of Republicans we can count on for votes and quiet support. And we were getting some national attention.

We did not win this fight but it was only through the political manipulations of one of our chief foes in the state senate. In the house, however, we passed the amendment on a recorded vote with the 2/3 majority we would have needed to get this on the ballot for the people of the state of Maine to decide. So we were not entirely discouraged.

We went back, this time with water allies. And this time we had a powerful ally whom we had converted from his previous skepticism about local food control. Senator Troy Jackson was back in the legislature although no longer on the agriculture committee. Niki Sekera, one of the chief water rights advocates in Maine, and Heather were introduced to the folks in the revisor’s office and we wrote our own bill this time. We included local water control. Farmers can’t farm without water, after all. Unfortunately, we ended up having to remove water protection from the bill to get it out of committee but it was educational to see the number of suits that Nestles can turn out to testify against any bill that tries to stop their theft of water from the people of western Maine.

Food for Maine’s Local Food RULES banner

Food for Maine’s Local Food RULES banner

In the 2017 session of the legislature as we were preparing to reintroduce our statewide food sovereignty ordinance there was a warehouse fire in a Hannaford warehouse in South Portland. For weeks the produce aisles of the stores around the state were empty. No one knows if this had a big impact on our final outcome but the fact that a fire at a warehouse in southern Maine could lead to most of our major grocery stores in the state looking kind of post apocalyptic was a wake up call for those who are paying attention. The fact is that the food supply chain is fragile. And people need to be able to feed themselves.

We got the bill passed, unanimously in both houses. A bill that said essentially: if a town passes an ordinance to have control of their own food system the state will not interfere. We were gearing up for a fight to override the expected veto from the governor when, outside of all expectations, he signed it. Victories are possible. It just takes persistence and being ready to defend the gains we make.

But as a friend of ours likes to say: “You get to the top of the mountain and you think you’ve made it and then the clouds part and there is the next higher peak you need to climb.”

We knew this was not going to be the end. We did not rest on our laurels. We kept busy organizing the 28 towns that have come to us almost immediately after the passage of the law to get their own ordinance in place. Auburn became the first city to pass the ordinance with no assistance from us at all. It is part of the zeitgeist now. The ground swell is happening.

Remember the national attention I told you about. This time it was the USDA. They are threatening to pull our state’s “permission” to state inspect meat and poultry processors and force them to have USDA inspectors unless the legislature amended the law to exempt meat and poultry from local control. The USDA position was based on the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act (from which Maine has an exemption) that puts production of all red meat and poultry in the hands of the USDA at the behest of Big Ag. Maine runs its own meat and poultry processing program under a cooperative agreement with the feds. They were threatening to make us a “designated” state along with 48 other states.

The governor called the legislature back into special session to deal with this. At the same time they dealt with Ranked Choice Voting and the marijuana legalization regulations. It was some interesting sausage making in that special session.

And as Heather says “when a bully wants your milk money and threatens you, what do you do? You stand up and fight back. But what do you do when he wants your milk money and threatens your friends?” As usual this is a divide and conquer mentality that works well for the oligarchs often. We strategized and conferred with our legislative allies and planned our next moves.

We went back to the legislature, took our muddy boots back into the halls of power, and with the help of our friends in the legislature we amended the law to suit the USDA and not totally gut the ordinance’s power. It was a good day. Made partially possible by the fact that we were really small potatoes in the special session. They used the USDA “emergency” as an excuse to call the special session on order to gut Ranked Choice Voting and the marijuana referendums just passed by the people of Maine. The legislators were anxious to get us out of the way and start carving up the two things they really wanted to mess with, RCV and marijuana. The sausage got made and the beat goes on.

Since that time various versions of the Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance have passed in many more towns. We are up to 40 plus towns and cities as of this writing and with town meeting season just beginning to rev up we expect to add to the count this spring. Here is a link for more information: