Small farmPhoto: Chewonki Semester SchoolIn 2009, Maine farmer Heather Retberg learned that new regulations prohibited her from bringing her chickens to a neighbor’s approved slaughtering facility. She’d have to invest some $30,000 she didn’t have to build her own facility.

So Retberg shifted her focus to raw dairy instead, selling directly to local neighbors. When she received a notice last year from the Maine Department of Agriculture that she needed a permit, requiring investment way above what she could ever hope to justify with her minimal sales, she’d had enough. She got together with four neighbors similarly upset with the new regulator aggressiveness and, after concluding that state legislators weren’t especially interested in tackling the problem, they decided to seek help closer to home.

They drafted proposed ordinances for four neighboring towns that would sanction direct sales of farm products between farmers and consumers, without the involvement of regulators, and even without the involvement of lawyers, if everyone agreed. This spring, they began presenting their ordinances at town meetings — that New England institution that has stood the test of time — allowing all of a town’s citizens to vote yea or nay on proposed ordinances governing town spending, along with other purely local laws.

First up on a Saturday morning town meeting in early March was Sedgwick, Maine (population approximately 900), where they’ve been holding these meetings in the town hall since 1794.

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Citing America’s Declaration of Independence and the Maine Constitution, the ordinance proposed that “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.” These would include raw milk and other dairy products, and locally slaughtered meats, among other items.

It wasn’t just a declaration of preference. The proposed warrant added, “It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.” In other words, no state licensing requirements prohibiting certain farms from selling dairy products or producing their own chickens for sale to other citizens in the town.

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What about potential legal liability and state or federal inspections? It’s all up to the seller and buyer to negotiate. “Patrons purchasing food for home consumption may enter into private agreements with those producers or processors of local foods to waive any liability for the consumption of that food. Producers or processors of local foods shall be exempt from licensure and inspection requirements for that food as long as those agreements are in effect.” Imagine that — buyer and seller can agree to cut out the lawyers. That’s almost un-American, isn’t it?

The approximately 120 Sedgwick citizens in attendance discussed the proposal briefly. (You don’t have a huge amount of time when there are 78 different proposals under discussion, as there were that Saturday morning.) When the discussion was over, all 120 raised their hands in unanimous approval of the ordinance.

Local farmer Bob St.Peter said afterward that he feels the vote creates favorable conditions for beginning farmers and cottage-scale food processors to try out new products. “My family is already working on some ideas we can do from home to help pay the bills and get our farm going.”

Next up, a few days later, was Penobscot, another tiny coastal town. About 100 people in attendance there, where a similar discussion to that of Sedgwick was held, and another unanimous vote.

But on the same Wednesday evening that Penbscot was having its vote, some residents of the nearby town of Brooksville were dividing on the proposal. There, the town’s Ordinance Review Committee had, a few weeks earlier, expressed concerns about the ordinance’s enforceability, should the state challenge the lifting of regulations, and also about potential liability issues and legal costs if anyone became ill from the unregulated food.

When the vote came up at town meeting, the committee’s recommendation was included with a secret ballot the 300 or so town citizens used to vote. The food ordinance lost by nine votes, 161 to 152.

But wait. Local organic grower and author Eliot Coleman discovered a possible glitch — that the proposed ordinance was preceded with a statement expressing the ordinance committee’s opposition, a bit of inappropriate electioneering, in his view. The ordinance may well get a do-over vote, likely by the end of April. A fourth town, Blue Hill, is due to vote on the ordinance in early April.

The notion of food sovereignty that has sprouted in coastal Maine may be gaining traction. Deborah Evans, one of the organizers of the Maine effort, says that since the Sedgwick and Penobscot votes, she’s heard from farmers around the country — some as far away as Texas — interested in proposing similar ordinances in their towns.

As demand for locally produced food expands, the pressures for such ordinances can be expected to expand as well, as small farms seek to avoid stifling regulation. The true test of their workability may well come when state or federal regulators decide that some local ordinance clashes with state requirements. In that case, we may see a court test of who has precedence. Given the pressures on farmers and regulators, such a clash and court test are probably inevitable.