PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — A fight over local control and food sovereignty that began in the fields of Blue Hill more than two and a half years ago, spilled over into the state’s highest court on Tuesday.
Justices with the Maine Judicial Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing Dan Brown, a small farmer fighting against sanctions imposed by the Maine Department of Agriculture that stem from his sale of raw milk on his farm without a license.
“I can’t give my neighbor a half gallon of milk. This is crazy talk,” exclaimed Brown as he stood outside the Cumberland County Courthouse.
Brown says it was about ten years ago when he and his wife, Judy, decided to start a small farm operation on their land at their home in Blue Hill. They had a handful of chickens and added a couple of cows.
“I loved it. It was a way of life,” said Brown.
They were producing more milk than they could consume, so Brown says he approached the state to see if they could sell the raw, unpasteurized milk, he was told he could on his farm as long as he didn’t advertise he was doing it.
“I was following their directions,” he explained. “I asked them what can I do? Where can I sell my milk? ‘If you sell from your farm, we don’t need to know you’,” he says he was told.
For several years he says they’re weren’t any problems. His operation grew to roughly 300 chickens and eight cows. He invested money in a farm stand and started making cheese and other products along with selling vegetables. Brown says he never worked so hard in his life, or was as content working as when he was fixing things on the farm.
In 2011, an inspector with the state paid his farm a visit. Brown says he was told he needed to make numerous improvements to comply with state regulations. He estimates it would have cost between $20,000 and $60,000 to meet the requirements.
“To produce a couple gallons a day, how could you ever recoup that?” he wondered. “It is the infrastructure needed to produce the milk to fall under a commercial dairy license.”
Brown closed his doors for about a week. Other farmers in the area reached out to him and told him the laws had not changed and that he should continue operating as he had been. So he reopened and was soon sued by the state.
Dan Brown says paying for the required license was never the issue, but the amount of money he would have had to invest to build the infrastructure to fall under a commercial dairy license was beyond his capabilities and something he was not interested in doing.
“This is about more than one man, milking one cow and selling its milk to his neighbor,” stated State Representative Brian Jones, at a rally before Brown’s hearing outside the courthouse. “We support the right of communities to determine how they will manage the production and distribution of food among themselves and the rights of individuals to determine what foods they will eat.”
Jones joined Brown and roughly two dozen of Brown’s supporters on the courthouse steps before his case was heard. All of them support local food sovereignty ordinances like the one passed in Blue Hill back in 2011. The ordinances seek to protect small scale food producers from having to comply with state and federal regulations and inspections.
“I am here because I believe food raised by a community, for a community, within a community should be regulated by that community,” said Heather Rhetberg, who traveled to Portland from her farm in Penobscot to show her support for Brown.
Eleven Maine towns have passed food sovereignty ordinances in recent years in an effort to support their local economies and keep them in business supplying their friends and neighbors with food grown or made in their own backyards.
Gary Cox, a lawyer with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund traveled from Ohio to Maine to represent Brown before the Supreme Court. He says if Brown is successful in his appeal it will “be a huge victory for food sovereignty”.
The state, which imposed a fine of $1000 on Brown for selling raw milk without a license, believes state and federal statutes supersede local ordinances.
“The department really does support local food sales and these kinds of transactions between farmers and individuals,” stated Randlett. “But, again as I pointed out, it can’t be without rules.”
The Maine Judicial Supreme Court is expected to issue its findings in the coming weeks.