|Craig Hickman. English photo|
Fumbling Toward Prosperity: Family, Community and the Maine Food Economy
Friday, September 20, 2019 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine
Winthrop, Maine, farmer Craig Hickman is serving his fourth term in the Maine House. He twice chaired the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. His keynote speech at the 2019 Common Ground Country Fair is posted on YouTube. Excerpts appear below, edited for length.
I’d like to tell you how I became a farmer. For all of my childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my father grew a small garden that yielded incredible produce, with no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides – almost. One year he shook garden dust over the tomato plants, which were being devoured by hornworms. He cried. He was afraid he would poison his family, afraid we would starve if we didn’t have tomatoes to eat fresh and to can. But he left alone the collards and other leafy greens. “They go directly into our mouths,” he said, “so we have to pick the bugs off with our fingers.”
Summer 2009, I stood amid the collards on our farm talking to my pregnant sister on the phone. I told Gina my collards weren’t growing well. Then she told me, in the last two years of our father’s life, when pancreatic cancer made him too weak to garden, she and my mother had no fresh collards. Pests had devoured them.
I couldn’t fathom my family went two years without Daddy’s collards. I stood amid my collards and wept. Losing my father became the most transformative passage of my life. The man who taught me about discipline, respect, honor, dignity; how to dream great dreams; to rise up after being knocked down; to love; to live – left this world and left a hole in my soul.
Two years later when I finally came up from under, I saw my father walk up the gravel driveway and into our house. I don’t know if I was sleeping or awake, but I saw him. That day I told my beloved my plans to become a bona-fide farmer. He said it was too much; I’d never keep to it.
I love a challenge, so if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m determined to prove you wrong. Five months later I opened a farm stand at our house and began selling our succulent vegetables. Now I can’t stop opening some new patch of earth to plant some new variety on Annabessacook Farm, as if all the energy my father didn’t have at the end of his life has fueled me to work from sunup to sundown.
There is simply nothing like living off the land, and nothing simpler, knowing exactly where your food comes from. I never would have imagined I would have become such an integral part of a local food system. I think of Michael Pollan’s words from “In Defense of Food”: “In a short food chain, food reclaims its story and some of its nobility when the person who grew it hands it to you.”
When I told one of our regular patrons about my father’s collard greens and my sister’s heartbreaking confession, we shared a moment of spontaneous silence in his memory. I swear to God, within a week my collards were on their way to the biggest, sweetest, greenest collards I had ever grown.
When I was a kid, my father and mother worked hard, but we needed food stamps. Still, my parents made clear that no matter how little we had, someone else had less, and we needed to help them any way we could.
I was 3 or 4 years old when a young girl who smelled of dried urine knocked on our door. After bathing her, my mother gave her a blouse, a pair of pants and a steaming bowl of cream of wheat, bacon and toast. I couldn’t believe how fast the girl devoured it. She had another bowl of cereal, and then my mother let her nap on the couch. When it was time for the girl to leave, my mother handed her a change of clothes and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Our home was a stop on an underground railroad for throwaway girls. It’s no surprise then that my current home is a place where anyone can come at any time, no questions asked, and receive food.
When I first made our community aware that free food was available at the farm 24/7, I heard all sorts of caveats. “What if someone takes food from your farm stand and sells it?” Where’s the love in that question? I guess they need the money to make rent or pay their mortgage, I replied. “How can you be sure people who take it really need it?” Well you can’t, but so what?
One time a woman called to ask if we had half a bushel of tomatoes to sell. I told her we did and asked what she wanted. “I want them for canning,” she said. “Well then we have some,” I replied. “How much are you asking for them?” she said timidly. From her tone, I sensed she had need. “How much are you offering?” “Ten bucks,” she replied. “Perfect.”
A few hours later, a woman I had not seen since the summer before walked up to the door. From September to November, she came weekly and purchased pounds of swiss chard, bushels of tomatoes, cartons of squash, preparing for winter. I was humbled and honored that she chose our farm to buy the food for her family.
I knew she worked for the state, and with recent budget cuts, it didn’t surprise me when she said she had lost her job. I also knew she had a large extended family to feed.
I tried not to be awkward. “Well, it’s Wednesday, and we offer a free hot meal in addition to the vegetables. Would you like one?” She shook her head, eyes cast down.
“I’m going to be insulted if you don’t take some of this food I cooked, so here.” I gave her four meals. She handed me the $10. I did not refuse the money because I’d been poor and hungry and it still didn’t feel right to me to take anything for free, since I was lucky enough to always have a few dollars to give.
After we showed her which box to fill with organic tomatoes, my godson and I left her in the garage where our fall harvest was stored. We sat in the kitchen and watched her put the tomatoes in her car. Then she got two more boxes of something else. That made my heart sing.
I know there are a lot of people like her who would never use a traditional food pantry that they would have to sign up for because their pride would not allow it.
Feeding people is not always a selfless act. We’re only as strong and prosperous as the least among us, so if one person is hungry, we’re all hungry. Moreover, the miracle of feeding people happens as much inside the person giving the food as in the person receiving it.
Supporting Food Sovereignty
I have supported food sovereignty since I got elected. In my first term I introduced LD 475, An Act To Increase Food Sovereignty in Local Communities. We didn’t get the law passed until my third term. The first time I introduce the bill, this was [part of] my testimony:
Her name was Mrs. Meeks. She, like us, lived on the North Side of Milwaukee. She hailed from rural Alabama and made a mean coconut cake – the only cake my parents ever bought for a special occasion. Her kitchen felt like the hearth in her home that it was. When I began teaching myself how to bake a good cake, in the fourth grade, Mrs. Meeks was the cake maker I wanted to emulate because in every bite of her cakes, you could taste the love.
Just as you could taste the love in Aunt Fannie’s famous seafood gumbo. Originally from rural Louisiana, Aunt Fannie migrated to Milwaukee after World War II. Nobody we knew who wanted gumbo for Christmas made their own; they bought hers. Or, if they were lucky, she sat them in her kitchen and served that spectacular ambrosia fresh from the pot. We were among the lucky ones. Still, if we took any gumbo home, my father reached into his wallet and gave her a little something. She needed it to help her family make ends meet.
Even though Mrs. Meeks and Aunt Fannie lived in cities, their values were shaped in the rural communities from which they hailed. So were my parents’ values, which is why my father shared some of his hunt with neighbors whenever they needed it; why my mother fed and bathed countless throwaway girls.
Now, I live in a rural community of people who share my values. I believe locally produced food is national security; that access to wholesome food is a right for every citizen. When one in four children goes to bed hungry every night, we must do better. Maine has all the natural resources and the hard-working, independent-spirited people to grow, catch, trap, forage, process, prepare and distribute enough food to feed our people and strengthen our local economies. Let us stop importing more food per capita than any other state in the contiguous 48. I believe one of the best ways to achieve food security and self-sufficiency in Maine is to allow our neighbors to advertise, sell and feed us the food we want to eat.
Who gets to decide the rules and regulations about our local food system? Who do you trust? The multinational biotech companies that want to control our food supply by genetically engineering and patenting seeds and influencing the FDA or USDA to create policies that drive out small producers? The food system that allows chickens to be slaughtered at a rate of 175 per minute with minimal human oversight, their carcasses dipped in bleach and chemical brines? That allows for hamburger filler to be washed in ammonia to kill E. coli? Or the person in your community who produces food with wholesome ingredients and heaping bowls of love?
If the people of Maine make a firm stand on who has the right to make the rules for their own food, how can we go wrong? The threat of the FDA or USDA taking over or shutting us down is a fear-based argument that has never held water. Food sovereignty means local rules for local food, is rural economic development, means farmers and people who commercially fish have first rights to local and regional markets. It means empowering communities to advance local food systems that ensure health and dignity for all Maine people. Since the 2017 legislation, more than 70 municipalities have enacted local food ordinances.
Resolve to End Hunger
This final term in office, I drafted a resolve to end hunger in Maine by 2030. On May 20, 2019, Governor Janet Mills signed it into law. This was [part of] my testimony:
Maine’s Constitution is sacred because it is a living, breathing document. It has been amended 172 times since 1820. I ask that we send a resolution to the people to make our sacred document an even stronger protector of people’s rights regarding the most vital of issues.
I present a resolution that pays the ultimate tribute to eaters – an expression of our right to enjoy and defend life and liberty and pursue and obtain our safety and happiness as set forth in Article 1, Section 1, of the Declaration of Rights in the Constitution of Maine. It reads: Right to food, food sovereignty and food self-sufficiency. All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to acquire, produce, process, prepare, preserve and consume food of their choosing, for their own nourishment and sustenance, by hunting, gathering, foraging, farming, fishing, gardening and saving and exchanging seeds as long as no individual commits trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the acquisition of food; furthermore, all individuals have a right to barter, trade and purchase food from sources of their own choosing, for their own bodily health and well-being, and every individual is fully responsible for the exercise of these rights, which may not be infringed.
This measure was carried over to address concerns that it might grant greater governmental authority over providing food to people rather than securing and protecting individual rights, or that it would promote trespassing and theft. No one interprets the right to keep and bear arms to mean the state must provide all people with firearms, or that people have a right to steal them. The amended version is a collaborative effort. This resolution, if ratified, will not invalidate state food laws or regulations, will not invalidate any hunting or fishing laws or regulations, and will not keep the requisite departments from enforcing those regulations. LD 783 is about freedom of choice, access to food, food self-sufficiency, food security, freedom from hunger, individual responsibility, and our basic fundamental right to work out our nutritional resume free from unnecessary interference.
Federal policy largely determines what we have available to eat, especially in Maine, since we import 90 percent of the food we consume. The food in the industrial food system is taking us to a place of epidemic addictions to salt, sugar and fat, leading to chronic diseases and slow death, malnutrition, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, endocrine disorders, hypertension, heart disease and cancer.
The farm bill has contributed to these public health disasters by favoring the industrial agriculture of the Midwest and South; methods requiring chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides over organic or sustainable; and commodity crops for animal feed and ethanol rather than produce for human consumption. It promotes overproduction, makes food hugely competitive and forces food manufacturers to do everything possible to encourage sales. The result: a food environment that encourages overeating of highly caloric, highly processed foods but discourages consumption of healthy, relatively unprocessed foods.
In 2010 the FDA declared in a U.S. District Court that people have no fundamental right to obtain the food they wish, and therefore have no fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health. In that same case, the FDA claimed there is no deeply rooted historical tradition of unfettered access to foods of all kinds. That’s an insult to our ancestors, who ate wild turtle soup, steamed snails, fried grasshoppers, fire-roasted grubs, raw fish eggs; made hog intestines, pig feet, beef tongue and brains, chicken hearts, thymus glands and pork belly taste good – and lived to tell about it.
Several centuries later, government agencies that were supposed to ensure food safety didn’t care much about the quality of meat available behind neighborhood stores during my childhood for the exchange of food stamps or money. The chicken was so yellow with age, my mother would soak it overnight in vinegar and lemon water to kill whatever might live on it, then stew it for hours in a pressure cooker. In the last 20 minutes or so, she would drop dumplings in the savory pot liquor and build a pot of heaven right in our kitchen. The only beefsteaks and pork chops available were so gray, we ate them only after they were charred past well-done and then smothered in homemade gravy, sautéed with mushrooms our neighbors foraged. My father would go hunting with the other fathers for possum, raccoon, squirrel and rabbit, which went into the pressure cooker with garden-grown carrots, potatoes, celery and onions to create a wild game stew so good, I could never get enough. Or he would slow-cure the fish he caught in his hand-built smoker. No deeply rooted historical tradition of unfettered access to foods of all kinds? That’s revisionist history at best, a misleading lie at worst.
As more people become informed about industrial agriculture, we seek nutrient-dense food from neighbors and friends, small food producers and homesteaders who produce wholesome food free from chemical preservatives, soy fillers, antibiotics, artificial flavors and coloring, clever rearrangements of corn. More and more people are obtaining foods of their choice through private contractual arrangements such as buyers’ clubs, community supported agriculture and fishery shares – executed with the informed consent of all parties. The FDA has claimed there is no fundamental right to enter into a private contract to obtain these foods. It has interfered with these agreements by seizing, condemning, embargoing, recalling or destroying food not produced under its auspices or with its permission, claiming that it’s protecting the public health even when no evidence of a pathogen or human illness is found. A web search for “food raids” or “farmer arrests” brings myriad examples of this abrogation of our liberty. The substantive due process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution provide that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process. Obtaining the food we wish to eat is so basic to our lives, our liberty and our property that it is inconceivable that our right to food choice would not be protected under the Constitution, but the FDA says no. Well, in our Maine Constitution, let the people say yes.
As Virginia farmer Joel Salatin asserts, more food choice, more food producers and more community-embedded food options increase food production, availability, price competition, and ultimately benefit everyone, including the hungry.
We allow people to smoke, shoot, preach, home educate, spray their yards with chemicals, buy lottery tickets and read about the Kardashians. Wouldn’t you think we’d let people choose their own food?
Food is life. Do we have a right to obtain the food we wish, or don’t we? It’s really that simple.