A group of small-scale Maine farmers and community activists who support them are planning to rally Tuesday morning at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland as the state’s highest court hears a case that has taken on David vs. Goliath proportions in local agricultural circles.

The case centers on Dan Brown, a struggling farmer from the small coastal town of Blue Hill who was fined $1,000 by the state in 2011 for selling raw milk produced from a single family-owned cow without a commercial milk-distribution license.

Brown fought the state in the case from the Maine Department of Agriculture up to Hancock County Superior Court without success. Now the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Brown’s appeal late Tuesday morning.

Although Brown’s appeal specifically seeks to overturn the $1,000 fine, the case has drawn much broader public interest from those in Maine’s small-scale farming community and farm stand consumers who see it as a test of local control versus state rule.

“They are singling him out. They are targeting Dan. This is a test case,” said Brown’s attorney, Gary Cox, who is traveling from his home in Ohio to represent Brown as part of the national Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

Brown contends he should never have been required to obtain a milk distribution license and that a small operation like his Gravelwood Farm, which he ran with his wife, doesn’t generate enough money to be able to pay for all the regulatory costs associated with obtaining a license and staying in business.

Cox said Blue Hill is one of 11 towns in Maine where voters have passed local ordinances allowing small farmers like Brown to bypass state and federal regulations on foods sold directly to consumers. The Maine Attorney General’s Office has argued that state and federal laws trump local ordinances, making them invalid.

“This has a lot of implications for farmers in the state of Maine like Dan Brown,” Cox said.

Green Initiatives, a Portland-based nonprofit group, has organized the rally at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the courthouse before the case is heard at 11:40 a.m. Speakers at the rally will include Brown, legislators from his area, activists and a list of supporters that grew over the weekend.

“The people are not only from the Blue Hill area, but also locally. I think it’s a huge issue. I think the state has a pretty decent-sized food sovereignty movement,” said the group’s president, Whitley Marshall. “We want to bring it back to small farming. We want to make it more acceptable for a small farmer to distribute to their neighbors and family.”

The state contends it rightfully sanctioned Brown for not only selling milk without a license, but selling raw milk, which is untreated by a heating process known as pasteurization, creating a public health risk.

Assistant Attorney General Mark Randlett, who represents the state in the case, has asked the state’s high court to reject Brown’s appeal and uphold Hancock County Superior Court Justice Ann Murray’s April 2013 ruling in favor of the Department of Agriculture.

Randlett argued in writing to the Supreme Judicial Court that Brown violated state law by selling dairy products made in his own home kitchen with unpasteurized milk from his farm, including butter, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, yogurt and ice cream without labeling them “not pasteurized” to warn consumers.

The state contends that milk products that have not been properly prepared or contained can cause serious illnesses from bacteria, parasites and viruses.

Brown counters that the state allowed farmers like him to produce small-scale farm products like he made for more than 30 years without a license as long as they didn’t advertise or sell directly from the farm. Brown checked with the Maine state veterinarian and was told he didn’t need a license before purchasing his farm stand to sell at farmers markets in Blue Hill and elsewhere.

Cox argued that the state changed the rules in Brown’s case.

“Had Mr. Brown been told he needed a license to sell raw milk from his farm stand, he and his wife would not have quit their jobs nor made the $22,000 investment in the construction of the farm stand,” Cox said.

Furthermore, Cox argued, Brown was told that to be issued a distributors license, he would need to spend more than $20,000 to improve his farm stand to meet state requirements, effectively pricing him and small farmers like him out of business.

Cox also argued that the state’s claim that unpasteurized foods are a health threat is legally misleading and should not have been part of Brown’s legal case.

“Mr. Brown’s family and he consumed his milk products on a daily basis; none of his family ever became sick from consuming his milk; and no person ever became sick from consuming any of Mr. Brown’s dairy products,” he said in his written argument to the court.

Different states have taken differing positions on the sale of raw milk. Ten states allow it, including Maine, and 10 states ban selling raw milk. Some regulate it.

Advocates for raw milk say it is healthier than pasteurized milk, protects children from developing allergies, and the bacteria in it help build immunity to illnesses.

Since the Superior Court ruling against Brown, the Maine Legislature has voted on two bills related to the sale of raw milk. One in 2013 passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, who opposed farmers market sales. The other died in the Legislature in 2014. That one left the farmers market language out and would have allowed raw milk and raw milk products to be sold on the farms where they were produced, as long as farms did not advertise or solicit sales and the consumers understood what they were buying.

While Randlett disputes many of the legal contentions in Brown’s appeal, he agrees this case is a first in the state.

“I’m not aware of any prior case to enforce the milk distribution licensing law,” Randlett said.

The Supreme Judicial Court, consisting of a panel of justices, does not make immediate decisions after hearing oral arguments and often takes more than a month before issuing a written opinion.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

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Twitter: @scottddolan