Here’s a Way to Eliminate the Regulators and Lawyers, and Build Community At the Same Time: Organize and Declare “Food Sovereignty,” Like Sedgwick, Maine

Town hall in Sedgwick, MaineMaybe the citizens of tiny Sedgwick on the Maine coast were listening to the calls of Dave Milano, Ken Conrad, and others for more trust and community, and less rigid one-size-fits-all food regulation.

On Saturday morning, Sedgwick became likely the first locale in the country to pass a “Food Sovereignty” law. It’s the proposed ordinance I first described last fall, when I introduced the “Five Musketeers”, a group of farmers and consumers intent on pushing back against overly aggressive state food regulators. The regulators were interfering with farmers who, for example, took chickens to a neighbor for slaughtering, or who sold raw milk directly to consumers.

The proposed ordinance was one of 78 being considered at the Sedgwick town meeting, that New England institution that has stood the test of time, allowing all of a town’s citizens to vote yea or nay on proposals to spend their tax money and, in this case, enact potentially far-reaching laws with national implications. They’ve been holding these meetings in the Sedgwick town hall (pictured above) since 1794. At Friday’s meeting, about 120 citizens raised their hands in unanimous approval of the ordinance.

Citing America’s Declaration of Independence and the Maine Constitution, the ordinance proposed that “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.” These would include raw milk and other dairy products and locally slaughtered meats, among other items.

This isn’t just a declaration of preference. The proposed warrant added, “It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.” In other words, no state licensing requirements prohibiting certain farms from selling dairy products or producing their own chickens for sale to other citizens in the town.

What about potential legal liability and state or federal inspections? It’s all up to the seller and buyer to negotiate. “Patrons purchasing food for home consumption may enter into private agreements with those producers or processors of local foods to waive any liability for the consumption of that food. Producers or processors of local foods shall be exempt from licensure and inspection requirements for that food as long as those agreements are in effect.” Imagine that–buyer and seller can agree to cut out the lawyers. That’s almost un-American, isn’t it?

This from a press release put out after the vote by supporters:

“Local farmer Bob St.Peter noted the importance of this ordinance for beginning farmers and cottage producers. ‘This ordinance creates favorable conditions for beginning farmers and cottage-scale food processors to try out new products, and to make the most of each season’s bounty,’ said St.Peter. ‘My family is already working on some ideas we can do from home to help pay the bills and get our farm going.’

“Mia Strong, Sedgwick resident and local farm patron, was overwhelmed by the support of her town. ‘Tears of joy welled in my eyes as my town voted to adopt this ordinance,’ said Strong. ‘I am so proud of my community. They made a stand for local food and our fundamental rights as citizens to choose that food.'”

The ordinance comes up for a vote in three other Maine towns upcoming–Penobscott, Brooksville, and Blue Hill. 

(Thanks to Deborah Evans, a Sedgwick area farmer, for providing information for this post, and the photo above.)

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21 Comments on "Here’s a Way to Eliminate the Regulators and Lawyers, and Build Community At the Same Time: Organize and Declare “Food Sovereignty,” Like Sedgwick, Maine"

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Bill Anderson
March 8, 2011 2:16 am

It is good to know that the spirit of grassroots local democracy is still alive in New England! We are bringing it back to the Midwest here in Wisconsin!

samantha stevens
March 8, 2011 2:42 am

that is so great! can you have a link to them or how to do that everywhere.and good for wisconsin, and bill.

March 8, 2011 2:52 am

My understanding of local governance is admittedly limited, but wouldn't such an ordinance be essentially symbolic? Local governments lack the legal authority to supersede either state or federal legislative acts; neither do they have the authority to modify liability under the common law.

Am I missing something? It's admirable that a community is making a statement like this (one that will undoubtedly be heard at the state level, particularly if other communities follow suit), but any raw milk producer or local butcher who attempts to rely on the ordinance as a legal defense to regulatory action or a criminal or civil suit would be in for an unpleasant surprise.

It's an open question whether municipalities might be better situated to address certain issues than other layers of government, but the simple fact is that even looking back to the revolutionary era, local government has never stood in a position of legal authority as compared with the states. At least not in my knowledge.

– Patrick,

Edwin Shank
March 8, 2011 3:14 am

Great news David !

This is a victory for Common Sense Americans are waking up! Joel Salatin, the very personification of common sense, says it best;

The only reason the right to food choice was not guaranteed in the Bill of Rights is because the Founders of America could not have envisioned a day when selling a glass of raw milk or homemade pickles to a neighbor would be outlawed. At that time, such a thought was as strange as levitation.

Indeed, what good is the freedom to own guns, worship, or assemble if we dont have the freedom to eat the proper fuel to energize us to shoot pray and preach? Is not the freedom to choose our food at least as fundamental a right as the freedom to worship? ~ From the forward of The Raw Milk Revolution.

Smy Opin
March 8, 2011 3:16 am

Nice post, David. A breath of fresh air after last week's bad news – thanks!

Raw Milk Drinker
March 8, 2011 4:53 am

Agreed! Nice post David! Just after I complained about the noise on the last post, you come along with this one. I like this much better.

Patrick, I had some of the same thoughts. I really wonder….

Raw Milk Drinker

Ken Conrad
March 8, 2011 4:57 am

Well, its sure a breath of fresh air when you see a local government take a stand against higher levels of government and the status quo. Most of them chose to be led around like rats by the Pied Piper.

It appears Thomas Jefferson at least envisioned it when he stated,
"If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.

They more then likely believed that the constitution would provide adequate protection against such Tyranny.

Ken Conrad

Bill Anderson
March 8, 2011 5:04 am

Some perspective on the concept of Food Sovereignty!

What is Food Sovereignty?

We understand food sovereignty to go well beyond ensuring that all people have sufficient food at all times to meet their physical needs. The concept was put forward first by La Va Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit.

Communities achieve food sovereignty when they democratically control what they eat, how it is raised and by whom, and how profits in the food system are distributed. Food sovereignty encompasses the rights to food, adequate nutrition and resources necessary for each person to be able to feed him or herself with dignity and in culturally appropriate ways. Fulfilling these rights requires community action to overcome barriers imposed on some people because of gender, income, race, religion and class. Under conditions of food sovereignty, food is produced using sustainable practices and never used as a weapon or denied because of social conflict.

Don Wittlinger
March 8, 2011 5:42 am

For the lack of "MONEY" to buy a "PERMIT" for a vegetable cart police confiscate the illegal unpermitted vegetable cart the young father without anyway to feed his family in Tunisa sets himself on fire and the rest is history! However I didnot see how this story began in our MSM. And to our shame the money trail seems to point directly at us.

Don Wittlinger
March 8, 2011 5:53 am

For the lack of "MONEY" to buy a "PERMIT" for a vegetable cart police confiscate the illegal unpermitted vegetable cart the young father without anyway to feed his family in Tunisia sets himself on fire and the rest is history! However I didnot see how this story began in our MSM. And to our shame the money trail seems to point directly at us.

The Complete Patient
March 8, 2011 7:42 am

You raise an interesting question, and maybe the lawyers here can help us out. Certainly there are all kinds of local prohibitions or rules that have authority. For example, a number of towns around Boston prohibit sale of alcohol,. We know there's a California county that prohibits the sale of raw milk, even though it's allowed statewide. I expect in the Sedgwick situation, it would become an issue if the state or federal authorities decided to make it an issue. And then I expect we'd have an interesting legal situation on our hands.


Bill Anderson
March 8, 2011 8:07 am

The city of Madison passed an ordinance effectively legalizing small quantities of marijuana for personal use — essentially the police have been instructed not to enforce the state and federal laws in such a circumstance. I believe this ordinance was passed in the 1970s, and is still on the books, but I don't know how the local police deal with it today.

Also, Madison passed its own living wage law about 5 years ago, but it was overridden by the state government when Governor Jim Doyle (also notorious for vetoing the raw milk bill) signed a new state minimum wage into effect that also banned local minimum wages.

Dane County also passed a number of laws and resolutions ordering the county sheriff not to share information with ICE about undocumented workers, but the sheriff's office has refused to acknolwedge these laws and resolution and has continued working with ICE anyways, despite widespread public protest.

So I guess the experience on this has been mixed… it depends on the law, it depends on law enforcement. Madison is certainly a community which is not afraid to take a stand in defiance of higher levels of government. We could very well be the first to do this with raw milk, if the state refuses to take up issue again this year because of all the strife over the budget and the unions.

Edwin Shank
March 8, 2011 8:39 am


Im not one of the lawyers here but my observation is that when the local law chooses to prohibit more than the rest of the state, nation or organization they will usually get by with it. It is when local law moves to allow more latitude that the trouble starts.

For example, I can imagine that if a county in PA would take a Humbolt CA position on raw milk, the state would take an its-up-to-them position. But if local law in an area moved to allow raw butter, cream, kefir & yogurt Im sure it would not get to first base.

Still, I say Kudos to the fine folks of Sedgwick Maine. Their common sense bravery warms the heart of every awake American. If nothing else, their move will bring the ridiculousness of the situation to the consciousness of another percent or so of Americans. One American at a time the tipping point will be reached.

About 75% of the 2000+ families that regularly purchase from us tell us that that it is only in the last three years that the light bulbs have come on in their minds. And they are each busy teaching the next 2000! That is power. That is hope. It is only a matter of time.

Smy Opin
March 8, 2011 10:59 am

Yes, so maybe when it's done by an occasional community, the idea is symbolic.
However, if the idea begins to surface in communities all across the nation, then it will become clear that our represestatives in higher goverment are failing to represent the populace.

And thanks to Egypt, we have all just been reminded that the populace is ultimately the "decider".

The Complete Patient
March 8, 2011 11:11 am

Would be interesting if a town and state wound up in legal combat over whether local farms could produce yogurt, butter, cream. If nothing else, would educate lots of people, since the media would take notice.

Smy Opin,
Absolutely correct. The Sedgwick approach is a model, but just one model. Lots of creativity allowed here, and the more that occurs, the louder the message becomes.


deborah evans
March 8, 2011 11:25 am

Patrick, et al ~

The problem with your question is that nobody really knows the answer. In Maine, there are maybe ten or so "citizen-initiated rights-based" ordinances like ours, passed in various towns in recent years, on a variety of issues. For instance, Montville passed an ordinance forbidding the planting of GMO's several years ago. ME's Dept of Ag wrote them a letter saying they could not do that according to some legal point, whereupon Montville's counsel wrote back that they could do it because of a different point of law. As far as we know, that was that.

Also, Maine has "home rule" for its towns in the statutes. The Maine Municipal Association published "Municipal Home Rule: Grassroots Democracy or A Symbolic Gesture," (from Maine Townsman, January 1983) by Michael L. Starn, Editor. In this article, he writes:

Municipal home rule in Maine is both constitutional and legislative. The constitutional provision can be found in the Constitution of the State of Maine, Art. VII, Pt.2, 1, and was adopted in public referendum in 1969. The amendment reads:
"The inhabitants of any municipality shall have the power to alter and amend their charters on all matters, not prohibited by Constitution or general law, which are local and municipal in character. The legislature shall prescribe the procedure by which the municipality may so act."

Our Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance states:
(1) Producers or processors of local foods in the Town of Sedgwick are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the transaction is only between the producer or processor and a patron when the food is sold for home consumption. . . .
(2) Producers or processors of local foods in the Town of Sedgwick are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the products are prepared for, consumed or sold at a community social event."

Therefore, we the radicals who concocted this mutinous act of infamy believe that according to the Home Rule provisions of our State Constitution, the citizens of Sedgwick have the right to enact an ordinance that is "local and municipal in character."

David posted a link to our ordinance template so please feel free to read it over as I think some of your questions will be answered there. Having founded our legal position in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the State of Maine, we feel that if a challenge is posed it can only be resolved in a court of higher authority.

The Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and the Alliance for Democracy have all aided us in our efforts to construct this ordinance over the last year. We have had the civics lesson of our lives – and it all started with a few of us sitting around a farmhouse kitchen table, having been gobsmacked by our Dept of Ag over a "new interpretation" of the 1,000-bird processing exemption..

Regardless of the outcome when all the votes are counted, Sedgwick and the other three towns have stood up and taken a stand on what matters in our communities. We know of several other towns who are just waiting to see how this goes before they jump in the game. Our State Legislators and Senator are very excited about this as it gives them a mandate to begin to make the changes at the state level. Right now there are three bills in the Legislature's Ag Committee that address our issues at the state level, largely because our issues are everyone's issues when you get right down to it. If citizens in enough towns in enough states stand up and take a stand on their local food system based on their inalienable right to produce and choose the food they eat, the Fed might have to listen! What a concept.

As a country the majority of us have become politically lazy and complacent. If we want change we must take up the tools of the democracy bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers, organize, and get the ball rolling.

If anybody thinks real change happens any other way, look at our history: Long before our Constitution was amended, individuals and small groups of outspoken people put their lives on the line to end slavery, to allow women the right to vote, to end racial discrimination, etc. Look at the struggles to legalize something as basic as the right to home school your own children. Real change comes from the people. Period.

Deborah Evans

Truly Concerned
March 8, 2011 9:20 pm

An interesting court case about our fundamental rights.

March 9, 2011 2:54 am

Thanks Deborah!

One of the oft-ignored side-effects of our system of states-rights federalism is that on questions like this there can be a tremendous amount of variation from state to state. I wonder how many other states have constitutionally protected municipal home-rule provisions? Not that such a provision guaranties state authorities will keep their hands out of local governance (as evidenced by GMO/Dept. of Ag. anecdote you shared), but at least it's something.

My gut impression is that Edwin's observation (that more restrictive local laws tend to be better received than ones that relax state or federal requirements) is accurate, but again, I imagine this all has to do with a variety of factors. David 's alcohol prohibitions are probably a good example of how the mechanisms for local action vary from case to case: I imagine some such prohibitions are effected through zoning law (which is generally local), while others might rely on other legal theories.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see if Maine (or USDA) challenges the legal effectiveness of this ordinance. I assume we can count on you to keep us updated, David!

– Patrick,

Barney Google
March 9, 2011 9:30 pm

I guess it's better to write about something safe, instead of anything controversial.

But the comments aren't as much fun to read !!

Bill Anderson
March 9, 2011 11:06 pm

I can spice things up a bit here:

Boycotting Scott Walkers Corporate Funders

Bill Anderson
March 9, 2011 11:22 pm

Did I mention that the capital building in Madison is still under a total police lockdown. A judge forced the Walker Administration to re-open the building to the general public, but there are now metal detectors and armed guards at every entrance, despite the fact that there has been no violence whatsoever in the over 3 weeks of protesting.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney refuses to serve as Scott Walker's "palace guard"