CBS: Maine farmer caught in local-state permit conflict

November 17, 2011
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PORTLAND, Maine — A Maine farmer is headed for a legal showdown for ignoring state law and following a local ordinance that exempts farmers from state and federal regulations if they sell their products directly to consumers.

Dan Brown, owner of Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, was issued a three-count civil summons last week for selling milk and other food products without state licenses from his farm stand and at farmers’ markets.

Blue Hill is one of five towns where voters passed local ordinances this year allowing small-scale farmers like Brown to bypass state and federal regulations on foods sold directly to consumers. The attorney general’s office has issued an opinion stating the local laws were pre-empted by state and federal laws, thereby making them invalid.

Brown is the first farmer in those communities who’s been cited for not following state agriculture laws since the local ordinances passed, said Bob St. Peter, who owns a farm in Sedgwick and heads a group called Food for Maine’s Future, which advocates local food control. The outcome of Brown’s case likely will set a precedent on the legality of the local ordinances, he said.

“I think if Dan loses this suit and the state is able to require licenses from him, then anybody in our ordinance towns will be forced to comply,” St. Peter said. “That’s a concern to people.”

Brown declined comment Wednesday, saying he needs to hire a lawyer first. But he’s put a video on Facebook and YouTube in which he said he’s been selling milk and other products without a license for a couple of years — even before the local ordinance was passed in Blue Hill — without any problems.

“I didn’t change what I was doing,” Brown says in the video. “They changed the rules.”

Whitcomb’s office has been swamped with hundreds of emails from Maine and beyond the past two days, he said. Most emails have asked that the matter against Brown be dropped, with some people applauding the state for stepping in.

Maine has hundreds of small family farms that grow fruits and vegetables, raise cattle, sheep and pigs, and process food products such as strawberry jam, cheese and baked goods. They typically sell their food products at farm stands, from their farmhouses or at farmers’ markets.

Besides Blue Hill, townspeople in Penobscot, Sedgwick, Trenton and Hope passed ordinances this year exempting farmers from state and federal regulations as long as they’re selling their products directly to consumers.

Officials delivered a summons to Brown last week alleging he was in violation of Maine agriculture laws by selling milk and other foods at farmers’ markets and his farm stand without the necessary state licenses. It also said he was illegally selling unpasteurized milk in a container that wasn’t labeled as such. He faces a fine of up to $500 for each violation.

Supporters of the local ordinances say existing regulations are burdensome and cost-prohibitive, and that family farmers and food processors don’t pose a significant public health risk. A rally is planned on Brown’s behalf Friday in Blue Hill, and supporters have launched a letter-writing campaign urging people to write Whitcomb and Gov. Paul LePage asking that the lawsuit against Brown be dropped and that Blue Hill’s local ordinance be respected.

Organizations that work on issues affecting family farms say they’re aware of a small number of towns and counties in California, Washington and Arizona that have passed resolutions or ordinances aimed at streamlining the regulatory process for small-scale farmers and food producers.

The goal is to make it easier for farmers to sell food to their neighbors, while giving the public more access to locally grown foods, said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

“But as far as passing ordinances, Maine is farther along than other states,” he said.

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