Bob St. Peter shares how towns in Maine are working to preserve their food sovereignty through a new kind of law. Learn about the growing momentum behind local rules for local food and community self-governance.
Bob St. Peter and Juli Perry | Photo: Siena Chrisman, 2013
On June 13, 2012, the Maine towns of Livermore and Appleton became the seventh and eighth towns in the state to pass a Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance, or LFCSGO. The ordinance passed unanimously in Livermore and by a vote of two-to-one (28-16) in Appleton. Since March 2011, a total of ten Maine towns have taken assertive action to define and protect small-scale farming, cottage food businesses, and traditional community social events by enacting Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinances and non-binding resolutions that support the ordinance’s intent.
The passage of food sovereignty ordinances in Maine has sparked a national movement of localized actions in California, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Utah to reclaim control of decision making over local food systems. The movement is raising important questions about who gets to decide how food is produced and how that food is exchanged among consenting individuals.
This essay will attempt to assess the impact of the growing movement to adopt food sovereignty ordinances in Maine and explain why the idea of “local rules for local food” is taking root. It will also attempt to counter criticisms that the LFCSGO is a tool devised to further marginal political positions. Experience has shown this movement to exist within the broader context of a growing dissatisfaction with the level of corporate influence over our lives and a political system too divisive and self-absorbed to adequately address the growing poverty and limited opportunity in rural America.
The Role of Town Meeting & Direct Democracy
Once a year, residents of towns in Maine gather for town meeting to approve school and road budgets, make charitable contributions to local libraries and community service organizations, and occasionally vote on other matters municipal in character. Town meeting is also the venue to vote on comprehensive plans that determine land use and development policies.
The use of town ordinances has generally been reserved for restricting activity within a town, such as limiting building on shore fronts or capping the height of communication towers. In recent years, residents of Maine towns have used ordinances to prohibit the extraction of ground water by multi-national corporations and to place binding and non-binding moratoria on the planting of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
The common procedure for introducing a local ordinance is first requesting that the town’s Selectboard (or Board of Selectmen, the elected body that administers the business of the town based on decisions made at town meeting.) place the ordinance, or “article,” on the warrant which is voted on at town meeting. Should the Selectboard refuse to place the article, a minimal number of petition signatures would be required in order to bring the matter before the town. Public meetings are often required to ensure residents of the town can get more information and discuss the ordinance prior to town meeting. The ordinance is again discussed at town meeting and is finally voted on in an open forum by hand, voice or ballot.
As a style of government, town meeting creates the conditions for an informed and engaged citizenry, and is a forum for moving beyond wedge-issue and culture war politics to a point where neighbors are talking with each other face-to-face without the media and electoral machine determining what issues matter. But limiting the potential for town meeting-level decision making is the widely held view that municipalities lack the authority to do much more than assess property taxes and pass school and road budgets. In case of the Local Food & Community Self-Government Ordinance, the Maine Department of Agriculture officially informed towns they do not have the authority to enforce such an ordinance. The opinion of the Maine Municipal Association, which provides legal services to Maine towns, is that the LFCSGO would likely not hold up in court.
The State of Maine has even gone so far as to file a “test-case” lawsuit against a Blue Hill farmer for selling food without state licenses. Despite this, towns in Maine have continued to discuss, debate, and enact LFCSGOs. This is a testament to the will of informed people who are demanding control over decisions about the most basic question of what they eat, and from whom.
Building Localized Food Economies
The Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance was conceived and written by small-scale farmers, farmworkers and farm patrons who were intentionally trying to rebuild the local food economy, but had been hampered by changes to food safety regulations. For example, new rules for on-farm poultry processing required new facilities and mandated equipment and procedures that were costly but not necessary to ensure safe, healthy food. Changes in raw milk regulations now required anyone selling milk to conform to facility standards established by the state. For someone milking a small herd or flock, two rooms for milking and bottling and another for making cheese may not be in the budget – but that doesn’t preclude continuing to follow best practices for clean and safe milk handling.
The emphasis on building regional or other centralized food processing infrastructure can overlook the assets already at hand – farms and farmhouse kitchens can themselves be processing facilities. But the idea of starting small and staying small does not fit well with the idea that farms are to be specialized businesses providing a steady supply of consistent goods to consumers. Or that food safety can only achieved through sterile environments routinely disinfected to fend off any possibly harmful organisms.
A small farmer raising some crops and some animals may not make a living solely on these activities, but they can be an important part of the home or neighborhood economy, and integral to health and well-being. In an ordinance-protected town, a homesteader raising chickens for her own freezer may choose to raise a few more to sell or trade to help offset the costs, or even pay a little for her labor. Perhaps this enterprise will grow, perhaps not. Nevertheless, the effect of producing even a small surplus can have a positive effect on the local economy. When multiplied ten or twenty fold the trickle becomes a watershed.
Commercial scale production is not necessarily the goal of the LFCSGO, but it is an important part of restarting an economy that is sustainable for rural communities. It is well understood by the proponents of the LFCSGO that giving your food dollars to your neighbor, who in turn gives them to her family and co-workers to be spent at other local businesses is a desirable goal. Which is why there are long-standing traditions of doing so.
Non-commercial food trade like barter and work-for-food arrangements increase the wealth of rural communities by encouraging self-sufficiency and simple living, as well as putting quality food on the table. Farmers and food producers can often receive the highest value by trading their food for other goods and services determined to be higher value. Vegetables for childcare. Ground beef and milk for wood-fired pizzas. Lobsters for attorney’s fees. Rabbit and vegetables for a visit to an osteopath.
Barter and trade also strengthens the solidarity economy by building relationships between producer and patron that may come in handy some day. Like the next time the chickens need a new house or feed money is in short supply. This is precisely the activity that takes place throughout rural communities, some of it unregulated and under the radar. By codifying into law these traditional foodways – which time has shown to be safe and supportive of local economies – the LFCSGO creates the conditions for small enterprises to thrive without fear of state or federal agencies shutting down their operation and assessing fines.
For generations official policy has supported cheap food by permitting corporations to capture monopoly shares of the food dollar. This cheap food has flooded rural communities, undermined local producers, and changed the culture of regional food. While reversing this trend will require action at all levels of government, from local food ordinances to overhauling the Farm Bill’s Commodity Title, far more people need to be producing more – and more diverse – food for themselves, their neighbors, and local markets.
Sprouting a Diverse Political Movement
On November 9, 2011, Dan Brown of Blue Hill was served a summons by the State of Maine for selling milk and other food prepared in his farmhouse kitchen and sold through his farmstand and local farmers’ markets. A little over a week later, on November 18, nearly 200 people gathered on the steps of the Blue Hill town hall to call on the State of Maine to drop the lawsuit and respect the authority of Blue Hill’s LFCSGO. Under the banner “We Are All Farmer Brown,” the rally brought together farmers, farmworkers, farm patrons, political activists, medical marijuana caregivers and patients, militia members, socialists, anarchists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, and “rednecks for the wilderness.” Following the formal rally, a parade of speakers ascended the town hall steps, took the mic, and explained why suing a farmer for selling food to his neighbors was unacceptable. Speakers framed the issue in a variety of contexts: preservation of local culture and traditional foodways; influence of agribusiness corporations over state and federal food policy; rural economic development; personal rights and liberty; hypocrisy and overreach of government officials and agencies.
For a couple hours that day in Blue Hill, the divisiveness that plagues U.S. political discourse was set aside in favor of a unifying message: We, the People, have the right and responsibility to choose from whom and in what manner we get our food. That message could not be misconstrued by anyone in attendance as being any form of justification for the environmental, social, and economic harm that predominates the U.S. food system. Rather, it was an affirmation of community-based food systems, of neighbors feeding neighbors using time-tested husbandry and production methods.
What transpired that day on the steps and lawn of Blue Hill town hall is an iteration of what Wendell Berry has called the “party of local community.” In his essay Conserving Communities, Berry writes:
“The natural membership of the community party consists of small farmers, ranchers, and market gardeners, worried consumers, owners and employees of small shops, stores, community banks, and other small businesses, self-employed people, religious people, and conservationists. The aims of this party really are only two: the preservation of ecological diversity and integrity, and the renewal, on sound cultural and ecological principles, of local economies and local communities.” – Wendell Berry
Differences on specific policies or issues have not deterred LFCSGO proponents around the State of Maine from forging a common identity that embraces the positive attributes of rural life: self-sufficiency; productive work; trust in your neighbors; localized monetary and non-monetary economies; personal and community responsibility for health and well-being. These unifying themes are bringing together people across the political spectrum and engaging them in honest, straight-forward discourse about what rural people need and expect from their government.
Also unifying the movement is the escalation in enforcement and tactics by state and federal regulatory agencies against traditional farms and cottage food businesses, as profiled in the film Farmageddon and on websites like Natural Health News. Raids on buying clubs, seizure and killing of heritage breeds of pig, and arrest of dairy farmers has revealed a frightening side to the agro-politico-industrial complex, uniting outrage across the political spectrum.
Of the eight LFCSGO ordinances that have passed in Maine, at least four were unanimous, one nearly unanimous, one was two-to-one, and only one was near the 50% mark. In a political environment where people are elected with less than 50% of the vote and bills pass or fail along party lines, unanimous agreement on such a fundamental matter is worth paying attention to.
Unfortunately, the LFCSGO movement has been misinterpreted narrowly as an effort by obstinate farmers to skirt regulations, or as part of a Libertarian/Tea Party agenda to keep the federal government from intruding into state affairs. These interpretations have failed to account for the broad base of support the LFCSGO has received: from state and county political parties, including Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian; from community organizations and local chapters of the Grange; business organizations such as the Blue Hill-area Chamber of Commerce; and from countless licensed and unlicensed food producers. A few hours on the internet and social media researching the LFCSGO will attest to the diversity of support and supporters.
Dismissing the LFCSGO merely as a Tea Party-inspired call to get government out of our lives trivializes the widespread discontent that has been born out of economic inequality and misplaced government priorities, as articulated in part by both the Tea Party and Occupy movements. The left-right continuum that dominates current political thinking has placed language and ideas into rigid boxes, restricting and degrading political discourse to sound-bite debates. The cries of “Freedom” and “Liberty” are not the sole property of any one political party or ideology. They are common ground for oppressed people everywhere.
Food Sovereignty & the LFCSGO
Finally, there is question of where the Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance situates itself within the growing U.S. food sovereignty movement. The LFCSGO was not conceived as a “food sovereignty” document nor was it the product of any one political ideology. However, as a document and a movement the LFCSGO is consistent with a number of principles of food sovereignty.
At its most fundamental, the LFCSGO is about asserting democratic control over food policy decisions and prioritizing direct input from small-scale farmers, food producers and the local community where they live. In communities where the ordinance passed, there were often strong assertions of the right to food and sustainable livelihoods. Discussions centered around the need to maintain the small family farm by orienting production towards meeting local needs first. Preserving traditional foodways and honoring local food traditions is a central theme in both the LFCSGO document and the broader movement. All this is underscored by the need to preserve the ecological integrity of the land and water.
The Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance recognizes that corporate-controlled agriculture undermines the social health and economic wealth of rural communities. It takes corrective measures to regain fairness and undo generations of bad policy that enabled the productive capacity of rural America to be dismantled. Ordinance-protected towns are holding government agencies accountable to the needs and wishes of its people. The LFCSFO seeks to do what government has failed to do: preserve and promote diversified, family-scale agriculture in rural Maine.
Food sovereignty is an idea still in its infancy in the U.S. As it grows, it will no doubt be informed by the experiences and culture of its proponents here. The LFCSGO has contributed to this through the articulation of the desire of rural people to build on what remains of small-scale and peasant agriculture, rather than abandoning it at the altar of progress. It is a reminder that there still exists a small-scale and peasant agriculture in this country, that it adds value to our lives, and that it is at risk and in need of immediate attention.
It is a call to resist the further erosion of productive, rural livelihoods by honoring the culture of local food. It denies that local food economies built on small farms and cottage food businesses are trivial or irrelevant to the advancement of healthy, vibrant rural communities.
Whether more LFCSGOs will be adopted in Maine or elsewhere remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the movement has tapped into a vein of unrest in the countryside. A growing number of rural people are refusing to give up their way of life and go away quietly, refusing to be called criminals for doing things the way their grandmother did. It is here where the people voting to adopt a Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance have, intentionally or not, joined the global food sovereignty movement in common cause with all the rural people around the world who feel the same way.
Bob St. Peter is a small-scale diversified farmer and seed grower living in Sedgwick, Maine. He is a founder of of Food for Maine’s Future and manages Saving Seeds Farm.
2. In 2009 Shapleigh and Newfield passed ordinances to ban large-scale water extraction to protect a shared aquifer. Also in 2009, the Town of Montville banned the production of GMO crops for ten years.
3. There are two ways out of poverty: increase income, or decrease costs. Reducing and eliminating overhead (rent, mortgage, food costs, utilities, personal debt) can have an immediate impact on reducing rural poverty and improving the health and quality of life for rural people.