The urbanesque Barre Town may seem an unlikely epicenter for a "food sovereignty" movement, but at last week's town meeting, residents quietly threw down the gauntlet for agricultural self-determination.
By a vote of 673 to 200, town voters passed a measure to "reject federal decrees, statutes, regulations, or corporate practices that threaten our basic human right to save seed, grow, process, consume, and exchange food and farm products within the State of Vermont." Barre City voted in a similar measure during its meeting earlier this spring, issuing the opening salvos in the battle for food system deregulation in Vermont.
The growing food sovereignty movement is a pushback by farmers, environmentalists and others against legal impingements on how they grow, purchase and consume food. It labors under the assumption that state and federal laws that prohibit turning raw milk into cheese, for instance, or slaughtering an animal for a neighbor, or even saving seeds that may have mingled with genetically modified crops, are sculpted more for a factory-farming culture than for one based on small farms and homesteaders.
Earlier this spring, the tiny town of Sedgwick, Me. (pop. 1000 or so), passed the first such measure in the country, albeit one with more powerful language: Voters unanimously rejected all outside regulation of food by explicitly protecting the rights of town residents to "produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing." Sedgwick residents can now waive liability when purchasing "unregulated" food -- such as raw milk or farm-slaughtered chickens — from their neighbors. Penobscot and Blue Hill soon followed suit, but state-level bills supporting those measures died in committee earlier this month.
The version that passed in both Barres is gentler in reach but no less significant, according to Barre resident Jessica Bernier. Bernier, head of the Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty, helped get the measure on the ballot in both places. "Food prices are skyrocketing. Most of our food comes from outside Vermont, and I don't know a lot of people whose wages are keeping up with inflation," she says. "As food becomes a much bigger issue, the best way for all of us to ensure we have food is to be very thoughtful and supportive of the food system."
Vermont's banning of raw-cheesemaking classes no doubt fueled this fire, as did the Monsanto Corporation's threat to sue farmers whose crops mingle with their patented GM seeds. But now that Governor Shumlin has signed the Dairy Class Bill into law -- allowing the classes to proceed again -- what other forms might food sovereignty take?
The term seems nebulous. Kelly Loftus, the public information officer for the Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, had to go online to look up the measure; it's still too new to have made reverberations at the state level.
Locals such as Barre Town resident Melissa Dunk-Nolan seem more familiar with its contours. Dunk-Nolan's "yes" vote last week was an affirmation of her right to purchase the food she wants, when she wants, from whom she wants. "How we get our food shouldn't be dictated by big government and corporations that squeeze out the little guy," she says. Citing the sticky issues surrounding raw milk, she advocates for "different regulations based on scale."
For now, the measures here and in Maine seem largely symbolic and anticipatory of what may come down the pike. Whether they end up having any legislative bite-back is still to be seen. At the least, Bernier hopes the vote jumpstarts a dialogue. "We'll hopefully get a conversation going in Barre about our ag policy in this state, and the importance of preserving seed," she says. "It's hard to say how it's going to unfold."