Local foods movement growing; GMO labeling law in Maine proposed

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Food Day was observed locally with a panel discussion held on Saturday at the Farmington Grange.

FARMINGTON – There’s progress in the local food movement with farmers now looking to expand their operations because they’re running out of food at the markets, while others are finding creative ways around barriers to the local market. That and other ideas were part of a daylong panel discussion held at the Grange to promote a sustainable local food system in western Maine.

Also announced at the Farmers and Patrons Rights and Responsibilities Conference, a local legislator intends to introduce a bill that would require labeling of genetically modified foods in Maine.

Saturday’s discussion was centered on growing the local food system in the western mountains region. Sponsored by University of Maine at Farmington’s Sustainable Campus Coalition, Food for Maine’s Future and the Farmington Grange, the discussion was designed to align with this week’s FoodDay.org, a nationwide celebration and a movement for healthy, affordable, and sustainable food.

Lillian Lake of Wilton, the development director at Food for Maine’s Future, said the discussion continues to include farmers trying to figure out what the public wants and how much of it to grow, along with supporting UMF’s students who want local food served at the university. Barriers to local farmers include government regulations that can impede a small farmer’s ability to get produce into customers’ hands.

Deb Evans of Bagaduce Farm in West Brooksville near Blue Hill, has bucked the state licensing requirements when it comes to her “extra virgin lard” products that include caramels and soap products.

“I’m the queen of criminal where I live,” she said when it comes to state regulation. She’s kept her operation small and between friends to avoid licensing requirements that include inspections and fees.

Evans renders and uses lard to make her products in her 1830’s era farmhouse. A mobile vendor license isn’t needed because “you don’t need permission to exchange products with a neighbor,” she said.

Lard falls under the meat-handling category so a state’s license for handling potentially hazardous food is usually required.

“I say no,” Evans said, rendering lard doesn’t need a license. She maintains the lard products she sells, along with edible products such as caramels and smoked meats is “an exchange between consenting adults, one that she provides one-on-one contracts for the private individuals who want her products. She also noted warning labels are attached to her products.

“None of the products are sold wholesale or are distributed (commercially),” she said, adding, “It’s illegal, but I don’t care because its right.”

Other barrier issues are that the food grown locally often costs more than vegetables or meats shipped thousands of miles. Improving the technology and training available to farmers may be one answer, but consumers also need to consider what went into making the food they purchased, from a lack of  pesticide use to indirect the considerations of land use, farm worker wages and supporting a local economy.

Some farms are finding the increased demand of their product, like the Marble Family Farms is finding, means moving some of their most popular items to the wholesale market by the end of this year, Richard Marble said. Their farm in Farmington specializes in fresh vegetables and homemade bakery items.

The larger issue of locally-grown food is part of a national movement that has been driven by a series of tainted food scares, rising health concerns, fuel prices and a poor economy.

“We need to create workable solutions,” Lake said. “You can go to your local farmers and ask questions. People want safe and healthy food. We want a secure system.”

Wearing a button that read “Extreme Locavore,” Bob Neal of The Turkey Farm in New Sharon, said he always keeps the customer in mind by providing food that is safe and healthy.

“We small farmers are the face on the food,” Neal said. “Accept that the food you eat comes as close to where you live as possible.”

Denise Boothby of Boothby Farms in Livermore argued growing your own food is healthy for families.

Denise Boothby of Boothby’s Orchard in Livermore, made the argument that raising her four children with husband Rob on their apple orchard farm “influences all dimensions of health.” Being outside, planting, eating food grown fresh from the garden are good for you. Boothby, an instructor in the Community Health Program at UMF, is also a registered nurse.

“That’s the whole thing right there,” she said looking a photo of a kid grinning and holding up an apple. “If kids get to know food and grow their own food, we’d have fewer bad health issues.”

The big applause of the day belonged to Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, who mentioned that in June he submitted a bill to label GMOs here in Maine. He said, if he is re-elected on Nov. 6, he will be able to continue to work on the bill’s passage.

GMOs or genetically engineered foods have been criticized for causing possible health risks that include tumors and various allergies. Others, including  the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, believe it’s not been scientifically proven GMOs are unsafe.

Currently, 21 states are looking at GMO labeling requirement laws. California residents will be voting on a GMO labeling law, Proposition 37, on Nov. 6. The law would require disclosure labels on all foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients except meat, milk, alcohol or foods sold in restaurants. That state’s decision is likely to be felt nationally, since a lot of the food shipped across the U.S. originates and/or is processed in California.

Harvell said afterward that due to Maine’s relatively small market, he will be seeking a compact with other states that have passed the law, adding, “we’re not going it alone.” California’s passage would bring a fair amount of leverage to an attempt in Maine for passage, he added.

Three states, Vermont, Connecticut and Oregon have recently failed to pass a mandatory GMO labeling law.

Lillian Lake, an organizer of the conference, addresses the group attending the conference.

Upcoming events of the Food for Maine’s Future include Praise the Lard! A Lard Rendering Class on Nov. 3 from 10 a.m. until noon and 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. at the Sandy River Farm Market, 560 Farmington Falls Road in Farmington. Deb Evans will be presenting her lard rendering class. Pastry, samples of her soap and lard caramels will be available. Class is $10 payable on day of class.

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