Old McDonald Had a Farm...and He Got Arrested?

Just in time for the holidays, four beef carcasses hang from the improvised slaughterhouse at Greg Niewendorp's 160-acre farm outside East Jordan, in the north of Michigan's lower peninsula. It should be a happy Thanksgiving because, for the first time in eight months, his farm isn't under quarantine by Michigan's Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Niewendorp is free to slaughter cattle from his herd of twenty and fulfill contracts in time for the holidays to the couple dozen friends and neighbors who prize the specially bred grass-fed beef he produces.

Yet it's also a bittersweet time, because the scars from his battle with the MDA are still fresh. Last February, he refused to subject his cattle to a mandatory state program to test cattle in his region of Michigan for bovine tuberculosis--a program he argues, among other things, is unnecessary because he distributes his beef privately to people who trust is animal-raising techniques, but which the state insists is essential to ensure the beef isn't tainted.

The state immediately slapped a quarantine on his farm, prohibiting the movement of animals onto or off the property. Then, in August, an MDA inspector arrived, escorted by two Michigan State Police officers, and attempted to convince Niewendorp to have his cattle tested by a vet waiting down the road. Niewendorp angrily ordered the inspector and police off his property, telling them that, without a search warrant, they were trespassers.

Finally, in early October, a team of MDA inspectors and vets arrived again, this time with a search warrant and two sheriff's deputies--and backed up by a half-dozen state trooper SWAT team members and three emergency medical vehicles down the road.

Niewendorp is convinced that "they would have liked to have killed me," but this time he didn't resist, so the vets did their deed and left. All the tests came back negative and the state lifted its quarantine last month.

While the matter is over for the state, Niewendorp says it's just begun for him. "They'll need a search warrant to do the test next year." He's also organizing the Michigan chapter of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association and says next year more Michigan farmers will refuse the test.

These should be happy times for owners of small farms. Not only are commodity prices way up, but the buy-local movement has caught fire around the country. Rapidly growing numbers of people are embracing the romantic notion of buying food directly from area farmers, sometimes driving hours into the countryside to buy veggies, meat and milk.

The number of farmers markets over the last five years has increased more than 50 percent, to nearly 4,500 from 2,800, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Since the European idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) was adopted by a handful of US farms twenty years ago, enabling consumers to buy shares in the output of local farms, the concept has been adopted by as many as 3,000 small farms across the US. Thousands of consumers are trekking out to dairy farms to purchase suddenly popular unpasteurized milk for its perceived health benefits over the pasteurized stuff, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a promoter of raw (unpasteurized) milk consumption. (Retail sales of raw milk are prohibited in most states).

Cracking down

But as the re-emergence of a farm-to-consumer economy draws increasing amounts of cash out of the mass-production factory system, the new movement is bumping up against suddenly energized regulators who claim they want to "protect" us from pathogens and other dangers.

Federal and state agriculture and health authorities say farmers are violating all kinds of regulations to meet fast-growing consumer demand, such as slaughtering their own hogs and cattle instead of using state and federally-inspected facilities, and selling unpasteurized dairy products and cider without the proper permits. Farmers feel there are other issues lurking in the background and driving the regulators--for example, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) under which farm animals are tagged with computerized chips for tracking; in most states the federal program is voluntary, but in Michigan it is mandatory, so the regulators who tested Greg Niewendorp's cattle for bovine TB also affixed radio frequency identification tags to their ears.

Whatever the immediate cause, the result is the same: regulators are cracking down on small farms with a ferocity that has their new urban customers aghast.

In just the last few weeks, there have been at least a half-dozen notable incidents. In Virginia's Nelson County, ten agriculture agents, aided by state police hauled off 62-year-old custom hog farmer Richard Bean, and his 60-year-old wife, Jean Rinaldi, for slaughtering their own hogs, charging them with a felony and eleven misdemeanors. Bean and Rinaldi were frustrated with the expense of having to haul their hogs more than two hours to the nearest slaughterhouse, and felt they could do it as well or better themselves.

In New York, health authorities shut down Munir Bahai's apple cider operations in Victor on his busiest weekend of the season in early October, costing him $4,500 in sales because he wasn't pasteurizing his juice. He says consumers travel thirty miles or more to buy his cider simply because it isn't pasteurized.

Also in New York, the Department of Agriculture and Markets a few weeks ago quarantined the raw milk yogurt and buttermilk at Barbara and Steve Smith's Meadowsweet Farm outside Ithaca, saying the state's raw-milk permit program allows the direct sale only of milk, and prohibits other dairy products. Barbara Smith says she doesn't sell the dairy products, but rather distributes them to 130 consumer shareholders of a limited liability company (LLC) she set up as the owner of her farm's eight-cow herd, and therefore is outside the purview of the state's raw-milk permit system.

Some farmers are responding as Greg Niewendorp did in Michigan, with outright civil disobedience. In Pennsylvania, dairy farmer Mark Nolt continues in a standoff with agriculture authorities because he refuses to sell his raw milk under a state license. In August, they confiscated thousands of dollars worth of milk products using a court order. He argues that because he has private contracts with his area customers, he doesn't need a license, and he continues to sell directly to consumers, despite the fact he could be arrested at any time.

The situation has gotten so bad that a group of consumers and lawyers banded together last summer to provide legal support to besieged farmers via the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Its first two cases involve farmers in New York and Pennsylvania-both distributing unpasteurized milk privately to consumers.

Protecting Who?

As much as regulators like to talk about protecting consumers, when you speak with them, it sometimes sounds more like they want more to protect corporate interests.

Bridget Patrick, who is Michigan's Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication Project Coordinator, told me recently that the case of Greg Niewendorp resisting testing of his herd "is a human health issue as well as an industry issue." Bovine tuberculosis can be passed on to people, she stated. Moreover, the fact that Michigan is one of a few areas in the US that still has evidence of bovine TB "has been a problem for the whole country" because some foreign markets won't buy American beef as a result.

She strongly suggested that Niewendorp was a spoilsport for not going along with the testing. " We need to have everyone participate in the program" to prove bovine TB has been eradicated.

Dairy regulators use the protection argument to justify their crackdown on raw-milk producers, though they tend not to mention the obvious: If consumers are buying milk unpasteurized, then that doesn't leave much for processors to do.

Nor do any of the regulators like to talk much about the new economic model that is emerging in the farm-to-consumer model. Farmers who sell their cattle to processors may receive $2 a pound, compared to anywhere from $5 to $18 a pound, depending on the quantity purchased and the cut of meat, when they do their own slaughtering. Similarly, when dairy farmers sell milk to processors for pasteurization, they receive in the neighborhood of $1.50 to $2.50 a gallon (depending on bacteria counts and whether the milk is organic). When they sell direct, they receive $5 to $10 a gallon.

Such discrepancies help explain why the farm-to-consumer model is "the gateway to farm prosperity," says Pete Kennedy, a lawyer who represents farmers both for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Lawyers like Kennedy argue that buying food directly from local farmers amounts to a contract between private parties, covered by the U.S. Constitution.That argument won the day in Ohio earlier this year, when a state court overturned an Ohio Department of Agriculture revocation of a dairy farmer's milk license, ruling her "herdshare" arrangement, whereby dozens of consumers bought shares in the farmer's cows so as to gain access to raw milk, was legitimate.

But this battle has a long way to go. The wide discrepancy in prices farmers receive by selling direct, and cutting out corporate distributors and processors, not to mention grocery chains, may help explain why the government is coming down as hard as it is on farmers. Regulators and their legislator bosses are clearly prepared to use intimidation to put a halt to such nonsense before it gets completely out of hand.

David E. Gumpert is a columnist with BusinessWeek.com, specializing in health and business. He covers nutrition and food issues at his blog.

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