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Small Farms Fight Back: Food and Community Self Governance

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions page and our Farm Issues page.

Heather Retberg stood on the steps of the Blue Hill, Maine town hall surrounded by 200 people. "We are farmers," she told the crowd, "who are supported by our friends and our neighbors who know us and trust us, and want to ensure that they maintain access to their chosen food supply."

Blue Hill is one of a handful of small Maine towns that have been taking bold steps to protect their local food system. In 2011, they passed an ordinance exempting their local farmers and food producers from federal and state licensure requirements when these farmers sell directly to customers.

The federal government has stiffened national food-safety regulations in order to address the health risks associated with industrial-scale farming. Recent widespread recalls of contaminated ground turkey, cantaloupe, eggs, and a host of other foods illustrate the serious problems at hand. These outbreaks have been linked to industrial farms with overcrowded animals and unbalanced ecosystems. The significant distance between industrial farms and consumers creates a lack of accountability and difficulty tracing problems when they arise.

Small-scale farming, however, doesn't spark the same safety risks. Small farmers who sell their food locally will tell you that the nature of their business, based on face-to face relationships with the people who eat their food, creates a built-in safety protection. They don't need inspectors to make sure they are following good practices. Keeping their neighbors, families, and long-time customers in good health is an even better incentive. Customers are also more able to witness the farming practices firsthand.

Still, small farmers are being pushed out of business because they are saddled with the financial and bureaucratic burdens of the same regulations as large industrial farms. Heather and her family's Quill's End Farm raise grass-fed cows, lambs, pastured pigs, chickens for eggs and meat, turkeys, dairy cows, and goats. The diverse mix is better both for the land and the economic viability of the farm.   


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