THEIKE EVERY Farmer Courtney Hammond, who grows blueberries and cranberries in Washington County, Maine, has a lot of worries. He worries about the weather, invasive species, crop failures and global prices. To comply with federal food safety laws, he had to undergo training, keep meticulous records, have insect and rodent control plans, and daily document the sanitation of his processing equipment. It’s a huge amount of work, but it means, he says, “I don’t have to worry about someone getting sick from eating anything that leaves my farm.” Now he fears that a new law will jeopardize his hard work.
Earlier this month, 61% of voters chose to change the state’s constitution to ensure all Mainers have a “right to food,” the first such law in America. Major supporters of the constitutional amendment included a Tory Lobster, a Liberal organic raw milk farmer, the Sportsman Alliance (a hunting group) and the Cumberland County Food Safety Council. The pandemic has shed light on food insecurity in Maine. The Mainers now have the “inalienable right to food … to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their choice.”
The amendment seemed trivial, but skeptics are wary of its impact. Marge Kilkelly, a former state legislator who raises turkeys as well as pigs and goats, points out that most people don’t know much about farming: “It doesn’t happen in an instant. You don’t just get the turkey seeds and put water on them. Pouf, there is a turkey.
Opponents of the amendment fear that its vague wording could open cities to legal challenges over local zoning and other ordinances. Rebecca Graham of the Maine Municipal Association expects everything from hunting laws to food programs to be called into question, at great cost to the taxpayer. Rules like that in Portland, the state’s largest city, which allows residents to a maximum of six hens (no roosters) could be ignored or challenged in court, not to mention cows grazing in the gardens of before.
Janelle Tirrell, director of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, worries about the treatment of farm animals by people ill-equipped to care for them: people “will use this right to food defense to justify keeping animals in a way that violates our current laws ”. Others predict environmental impacts, such as contaminated water supplies. Some farmers fear that hobbyists will introduce invasive species that could damage their crops.
Billy Bob Faulkingham, the Republican state representative who championed the measure, pooped those concerns. He thinks court challenges are unlikely. The frivolous will be fired. The law will give the Mainers greater ownership of the food supply, he says: about 90% of the state’s food is imported. Alluding to the constitutional right to bear arms, he said, “I call this the Second Food Amendment. His partner across the way Craig Hickman, a Democratic state senator and organic farmer, says not everyone is going to start growing or raising animals, but it will “make people buy locally” or even to share their land with their neighbors.
It matches the local culture. Despite its relatively small agricultural industry, Maine supports its producers. The state constitution grants tax breaks to farms. Some communities pay people to cultivate their land. The state has experimented with food sovereignty. More than 100 cities have passed ordinances that allow food “self-government”, leaving cities to set their own rules for food products. Producers in these locations can sell directly to customers, offering, for example, unlicensed unpasteurized milk (meat and poultry are excluded).
Farm-to-table restaurants are extremely popular. Maine is a “gourmet” destination. Tourists flock there for its lobsters, blueberries and cranberries. Julie Ann Smith of the Maine Farm Bureau wonders how food safety can be maintained without regulation. This is why Mr Hammond is so worried about the new amendment. It will only take one tourist sickened by the blueberries sold by an amateur to taint every farmer in Maine, not just “the guy with three tomato plants on his porch.”■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Reaping What You Sow”