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Small Growers and Dairy Farmers Speak-out Against Increased Restrictions
05/07/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Small growers and dairy farmers packed a legislative policy committee hearing room today to speak out in favor of two bills that would secure their ability to sell limited amounts of their products to the public without undergoing state inspections or being required to obtain special state licenses. Although the majority of those speaking favored fewer restrictions, some small farmers argued that maintaining state quality standards are in everyone's best interest.

Mainers can still purchase home-grown produce from the local farmer, but Rep. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop) isn't sure how much longer that tradition will continue. Hickman runs his own organic farm in Winthrop and he's concerned over last week's court ruling that concluded a Blue Hill dairy farmer had to have a license to sell raw milk, despite his town's ordinance exempting local farmers from state food regulations.

"We don't know what's coming down the pike," Hickman said.

Hickman is sponsoring a bill before the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that would exempt small farmers from licensure when selling their crops at their farms or AT farmer's markets. Nor would licenses or state inspections be required for selling homemade foods at a farmer's market or from a farmer's home. The committee also heard testimony on another bill that would permit dairy farmer to sell raw milk. Supporters said that both measures reflect the growing strength of the food sovereignty movement in Maine. And Hickman said state regulations threaten the traditional relationship farmers have had with consumers, as well as the local economy.

"I just think it's time, I think this is the issue of our time," Hickman said. "And I think that we should do what we need to do to help grow our economy and make sure that we can end hunger in our rural communities and one of the best ways to do that is to allow for more food to be available."

Ron Dyer, director of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the state Department of Agriculture, said he could support Hickman's bill, if changes were made to ensure that buyers are told where the food comes from. He said some of those provisions could be carried out through food labeling, which might include a disclaimer that the state did not regulate or inspect the product. And he said the exemptions should apply only to foods that do not carry a risk for botulism. Linda Whitmore Smithers, who testified before the committee said there's a place for inspection and licensing.

"But to take away our right to choose from whom we obtain our food is somewhat frightening," Smithers said. "Are we not capable to look at a local food producer face to face and make a decision about whether or not we want to consume their product?"

But Joan Gibson, who runs a dairy farm in Levant with her husband, said just knowing where your food comes from doesn't make it safe.

"Well it's not about relationships, it's about biological processes, it's about things that happen to certain types of foods that are high-risk foods when they are not refrigerated or properly handled," Gibson said. "So I am in complete support of any kind of local food movement, but it needs to be done so it's safe."

Lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee could vote on both bills this week.

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