The state of Maine has made headlines in the agricultural world. On Nov. 2, Maine approved a “right to food” amendment to their state’s constitution. This is the first of its kind in the nation. It states that “All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food.”
This amendment provides Maine residents with the constitutional right to grow, harvest and consume their own food. It even gives them the right to save and share seed with other producers. This began as a referendum from the people. It advanced to the legislature, where two-thirds of its delegates voted to affirm the right of a citizen to feed, grow and raise the food they need for their family. Hopefully, this is the first of many state and federal changes to ensure that family farmers have a prominent role in American agriculture.
Last year, when COVID-19 was just beginning to shut down much of the country, we all remember shortages at grocery stores. First, it was toilet paper, then shortages moved to the meat counter because of processing plant closures. Farmers were not harvesting vegetables in March and April of 2020 because of the loss of wholesale markets catering to restaurants. Milk was dumped in every corner of the country. Our food system has grown to be nationalized and run by a very few multinational companies. Today’s consumers have only experienced a large industrial food complex. But, Americans are now seeing the importance of buying local and supporting family farms.
The idea of consumers focusing on local farmers to produce their food is certainly not a new idea, but to many it was all but forgotten. In the past decade we have seen farmers markets grow in popularity.
My wife and I have a friend who operates a vegetable subscription business. For several years, we subscribed to receive weekly boxes containing a variety of fresh vegetables. Now, my wife and I have our own garden, which seems to grow larger every year. We have always raised our own beef, but as friends have asked for meat, we began selling them an animal to butcher for their families. This is becoming more popular all the time. Prior to COVID, we could call our local butcher and schedule an animal for a few weeks out. Then it became six months. Now, we must schedule a year in advance.
To help with this demand, Montana Farmers Union has invested in a mobile processing facility, which they are locating in Havre, Montana. MFU has partnered with the state of Montana to develop a meat-cutting curriculum at the Montana State University in Havre. The mobile processing facility will be federally inspected, so we will have greater flexibility to market our meat to the public. My wife and I have invested money in this for several reasons. First, the guarantee of more available animals which we can sell direct; second, is to foster the new program which we hope leads to more local butcher shops; and third, we want to provide consumers with more buying options.
This country’s food system needs to change. Weaknesses of the system were front and center during 2020. Smaller, local processing of our agricultural products is what we need. That will lead toward a smaller carbon footprint because of shorter hauling distances and will create a stronger rural economy. Maine understands the importance of “food as a right,” I hope everyone else does too.
—Bruce Shultz, Raynesford, Montana, is vice president of the National Farmers Organization.