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Why Is a Farmer Who Sells Extra Milk From His One Cow to Neighbors Being Sued By the State of Maine?

The lawsuit also challenges a 'local food and community self-governance' ordinance.
 
 
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This is the first in a two-part series by the Center for Media and Democracy's Food Rights Network (FRN) about challenges to local food sovereignty across the United States. You can read the second one here.

More than 150 supporters gathered on the steps of Town Hall in Blue Hill, Maine on Friday, November 18. They protested the State of Maine's and Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb's lawsuit against local farmer Dan Brown of Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill. In response to a shout of, "Who is Farmer Brown," the crowd shouted, "We are all Farmer Brown!"

The lawsuit, filed in Maine Superior Court earlier this month, accuses Brown of "unlicensed distribution and sale of milk and food products."

But Brown, far from operating a mega-dairy or even distributing milk to retailers, milks one cow. After he and his family provide for their own needs, the remaining milk is sold from their farm stand. Brown said in a speech to supporters, "I'm not a milk distributor. I'm a farmer. That's all I've ever wanted to be, it's all I've ever done." In an interview with the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), Brown, who seemed uncomfortable with the spotlight, added, "I'm just a lonely farmer. I don't even have a high school diploma. I'm just here on my farm doing my thing."

One thing he's not doing is giving up. Brown said he will challenge the lawsuit, and that the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) has agreed to represent him. He has also requested results from any tests the state performed on his dairy products.

Bob St.Peter, who farms down the road from Brown in Sedgewick, Maine, spoke with CMD about the disconnect between the Maine Department of Agriculture and local small farmers:

Much of what the Department does is regulate and oversee specialized operations, whether dairy, poultry, or value-added. By comparison, our model, which has existed in rural communities for a long time, is that of small diversified farms, with some chickens, some pigs and some crops. They didn't understand how our farms worked and what we were doing on ecological principles, promoting animal health so that we could assure safe food.

Commissioner Whitcomb, however, should understand. Before becoming Agriculture Commissioner, he helped run his family's dairy farm in nearby Waldo, Maine, for 32 years. With an estimated annual revenue of $370,000 and a staff of five, Whitcomb's Springdale Farm is rather bigger than Brown's, but he remembers how his grandfather farmed.

Heather Retberg, of Quill's End Farm in Penobscot, Maine, spoke at the rally in support of Farmer Brown. She told supporters that, in a meeting with local farmers just before his confirmation to his new appointment last winter, Whitcomb told them that his grandfather had sold food just like farmers Retberg, St.Peter and Brown do, "just from one person to another, from his farm to the people who wanted the farm's goods, not interested in getting big, or mass distribution." She went on to explain:

Commissioner Whitcomb's grandfather is Farmer Brown, too, able to grow, produce and sell within his own community without intervention from the state or federal government.

But now Commissioner Whitcomb is suing Farmer Brown . . .

We are no longer farmers, according to the rapidly changing vocabulary of the regulatory world. By redefining farmers as milk distributors or food processors, the rules require facilities . . . that are entirely inappropriate to diversified, small, family-scale cottage operations. These rules threaten to quietly erase farmers and access to locally raised foods from our communities.

According to Jeff Beyea, who worked for Whitcomb as a herdsman for over a year, Whitcomb sold raw milk from his farm without a license. In the confirmation process of becoming Agriculture Commissioner, Beyea claims, Whitcomb worried about whether his raw milk sales were going to be an issue. "It should be one rule for all of us, not one rule for the elite and one rule for the man with one cow," Beyea said in his speech at the rally.

According to Brown, "The farmer Walt Whitcomb was a personal friend. My wife's known him for 20 years. My cows all originated from his cows. He was very supportive, a really nice man. It wasn't until he became Commissioner Whitcomb that we've had a difference of opinion, and that shows the pressure he's under from the state and the federal government."

Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinances

The towns of Blue Hill, Sedgewick and Penobscot, Maine are three of the five Maine towns that have passed Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinances this year. These ordinances, which CMD has profiled before, permit the kind of sales Brown has been engaged in. His town, Blue Hill, was the first town to pass such an ordinance.

Maine is a home rule state, which means that cities, municipalities and counties have the ability to pass laws to govern themselves, as long as those laws don't conflict with the state and federal constitutions. The lawsuit against Dan Brown has been called a challenge to Blue Hill's local ordinance.

Similar ordinances and resolutions have since passed in towns and counties in Massachusetts, Vermont and California. How will this challenge to Blue Hill's ordinance affect farmers and the neighbors they feed in other parts of the country?

Farmer Brown says, "One of these times, they're going to come after one of us, and it's going to be that Rosa Parks moment. I'm hoping the public will realize what's going on . . . They've got to get involved. We've got to fix what's wrong with the food system."  

Rebekah Wilce is the lead writer for the Center for Media and Democracy's Food Rights Network.
 
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