ATHENS — Kassie Dwyer is all about the basics — food, farm, family and freedom.

A farm woman and mother of a 5-year-old son, Dwyer, 29, is launching an effort to enact the Athens Food Sovereignty Ordinance, allowing consumers to buy directly from farmers and food producers without state and federal licensing and inspections.

It’s about sustainability, self governance and self sufficiency, she said.

“I just think it’s common sense,” Dwyer said from her kitchen at Eden Farm on Brighton Road, located a couple hundred yards from where her grandparents, Marlene and Maynard Frith, ran a dairy farm for many years and where she grew up. “I think this is something that every town should have. It’s a basic liberty. It’s the right to food, to choose where you get your food. It’s just a human right, to me.”

If approved by voters this year at a special town meeting or next March at the annual meeting, the ordinance would affirm the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local food, with Athens joining the neighboring communities of Solon, Madison, Starks, Bingham and dozens of others across the state.

Gov. Paul LePage signed a revised food sovereignty bill into law last fall that eased restrictions for some farmers and processors by tweaking state food laws in direct farm-to-table sales.

The law means Maine consumers can buy directly from farmers and food producers without state oversight or inspection of foods including milk, cheese, yogurt, cider, applesauce, canned foods and vegetables.

Poultry and meat continue to be state-inspected.

Dwyer earned a degree in sustainable agriculture with a minor in animal science from the University of Maine. She also has a teaching certificate and teaches middle school students in a team with her mother, Tammy (Frith) Moulton, and Edward Ellis at the Athens Community School, a teacher-led school.

Farmer Kassie Dwyer takes a break from milking a goat named Diamond on Tuesday at the Eden farm in Athens. Dwyer is launching an effort to enact an Athens Food Sovereignty Ordinance, which would allow consumers to buy directly from farmers and food producers without state and federal licensing and inspections. Staff photo by David Leaming

Dwyer said she and her husband, Joe, raise mostly grass-fed beef, chickens and pigs, which are not covered by the proposed Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance, but they also produce cheese with her sister Krysta, garden vegetables and goat milk that they will be able to sell from their farm.

“I don’t really benefit much from it personally — meat and poultry is still regulated, because that’s federally covered — but I just see it as important,” she said. “Originally when Maine passed the bill, meat and poultry was included. Then the USDA found fault and it had to be changed. Now this allows people to buy food from farmers without the farmer having to get inspections and licenses and pay fees. It was ridiculous.”

Dwyer said without a local ordinance in place, she would need to have an inspection at least once a year and a dairy license to sell her goat milk and cheese. With an ordinance, she and other producers in Athens will be able to sell what they produce in town to a consumer as long as the transaction takes place in Athens.

“The transaction has to happen here,” she said, “and it has to be a direct transaction. I couldn’t sell my stuff to the Corner Store and have them sell it.”

Sales at any of the state’s farmers’ markets still require a license, she said.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, as a means to encourage local food production and consumption.

With the passage of the law, Maine became a leader in the food sovereignty movement and just the second state in the nation to promote freedom of food choice for consumers who are willing to do without some food safety regulations.

John Bott, director of communications at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said food safety is the primary focus of the agency as it continues to support the food sovereignty bill with a watchful eye.

“The department is working hard to implement the new law,” Bott said, acknowledging concerns expressed earlier this year by Commissioner Walter Whitcomb. “He expressed his concerns with food sovereignty because of the issue of food safety being paramount in his mind. So there clearly are issues with that, but the department’s attempting to work to meet the goals of the law.”

Bott said there are certain advantages to being licensed and inspected by the state, a process that is affordable. He said it allows producers a wider range of places where they can sell their products, be it out of town, out of state or internationally.

“Food safety and protecting the image of the Maine brand is paramount in our minds,” he said. “What’s unique about Maine, what’s healthy, what’s wholesome — we just don’t want to see a situation where the progress that we’ve made with Maine agriculture is negatively impacted. We’re working very hard to preserve food sovereignty and to work to grow Maine agriculture, but recognize the food sovereignty law.”

Betsy Garrold, of Knox, president of Food For Maine’s Future, said she and others lobbied in Augusta for eight years before finally gaining food sovereignty acceptance last year. Now about 40 communities in Maine have adopted some form of the sovereignty option, she said, adding that more special town meetings this summer could add to the growing list.

Garrold said the movement focuses on sustainability, maintaining historic food-exchange practices and home rule in Maine.

“It’s going really well. We’ve at least doubled the number of towns since the law passed at the state level,” she said of the food movement in Maine. “We were just recently given a national award from the Health Freedom Congress for our work.”

She said towns adopting a food sovereignty ordinance now have the freedom to come together to save their traditional food ways, and to have it become part of the law under Maine’s home rule statute.

“We’re very fortunate in the state of Maine. I go all over the country talking about this as vice president of the National Family Farm Coalition. We’re extremely fortunate that we are a home rule state, so we have enshrined in our Constitution the right that we can make these decisions at a very local, community level,” Garrold said.

Athens farmer Kassie Dwyer walks through a patch of garlic growing in a huge garden Tuesday at her Eden farm in Athens. Dwyer is launching an effort to enact a Athens Food Sovereignty Ordinance, which would allow consumers to buy directly from farmers and food producers without state and federal licensing and inspections. Staff photo by David Leaming

Dwyer said she used a template for the Athens ordinance provided by Food For Maine’s Future.

The purpose of the ordinance is to preserve the ability of individuals and communities to save and exchange seed; and to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume locally produced foods through local control while ensuring the preservation of family farms and traditional food ways through small-scale farming, food production and community social events, according to the template.

The idea also is to improve the health and well-being of local people by reducing hunger, increasing food security, and promoting self-reliance and personal responsibility. The ordinance also would enhance rural economic development and the environmental and social wealth of rural communities.

“When you go to buy at the grocery store, you don’t know where it’s coming from,” Dwyer said. “I think it gives people the opportunity to really know where their food comes from.”

Heather Retberg, a Blue Hill farmer who has been a leader in the movement, said so far, 41 Maine municipalities have adopted some version of the Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance. Last year at this time, there were 20 towns in seven counties.

“In just one year’s time, since the original passage of the Maine Food Sovereignty Act at the state level last June, the number of towns expressing food sovereignty has more than doubled,” Retberg said.

She said Somerset County has the second-highest number of places that have adopted the ordinance, with eight, second to Hancock County with nine.

“But Somerset County — especially that stretch on (U.S. Route) 201 — Solon, Moscow, Bingham, Madison — has a special place in my heart,” Retberg said. “Anson, too.”

Dwyer said she brought her plan to a recent meeting of the Athens Board of Selectmen, who told her a vote will have to be scheduled at a possible special town meeting this year.

Athens First Selectman Mark Munn said the board would back the idea of a food sovereignty ordinance, noting that Selectman and farmer Guy Anton was pursuing the idea before Dwyer approached the board.

“We’re all good with it,” Munn said.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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