Free the Udders!
About nine years ago, Maine’s small farms found themselves at a tipping point. Heather Retberg felt the shift firsthand at her Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, when a state agriculture inspector showed up to tell her there’d been a rule change at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. She could no longer legally sell her chickens, the inspector said, even though they’d been slaughtered at a friend’s licensed facility.
“Any farm selling poultry would have to build its own processing facility,” Retberg says, but she and her husband, Phil, weren’t selling enough to justify the expense. “We couldn’t raise 200 to 300 birds and pay for that kind of facility, and raising more chickens wasn’t good for our land or for our market.”
Soon after, the same inspector returned to inform Retberg of another rule change: if she wanted to continue selling raw milk from the three cows that Phil milked by hand, she’d need a milk distributor’s license and a dedicated milking room.
“It didn’t make sense,” Retberg says. “It seemed like, wow, this is how people get indebted in a way that kills farms.”
So began a movement, spearheaded by Retberg and a handful of other Blue Hill Peninsula farmers, to preserve the intimate grower-to-neighbor trade that’s taken place in Maine’s small towns for generations. By 2017, they had helped organize 20 communities to pass ordinances that asserted local government’s right to regulate local food systems, unencumbered by state licensing and inspection requirements that Retberg and her peers say were written for much larger farms and processors.