The 250 or so people attending my presentation Saturday on “America’s Underground Food War” at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania broke into applause when I told them, near the end of the talk, that Alvin Schlangen had been acquitted of all charges Thursday in connection with his raw milk and private food case.
Like the members of Schlangen’s food club, they no doubt wanted to begin humming, “Ding Dong, the Wicked Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz.
Wish it were so. But the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has made clear that it won’t go as easily as the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. Its statement following the Schlangen verdict wasn’t merely defiant, but defiant in a haughty way.
It said it has “respect (for) the role of the jury.” But in fact, it not only has no respect, but it has complete contempt for both the role of the jury and the rule of law. How can I tell? When the MDA says, “The law on this matter is clear, and the jury was tasked with making a narrow finding” of guilt or innocence, it seeks to marginalize the jury’s role and decision.
Obviously, the jury didn’t think the law was clear at all. Or, even worse from the MDA’s viewpoint, the law was clear and Schlangen was found to not have violated any of the laws alleged by the MDA. So the MDA is saying the jury was wrong.
Further, the MDA suggests the jury’s finding was of limited impact by saying the entire matter was about “a narrow finding…” In point of fact, the jury’s verdict was on fairly important and wide-impact matters covering private distribution of milk and other foods. I’d say it was a broad finding.
And finally, the MDA suggests that because the jury possibly struggled in its decision–“deliberated for as long as they did shows that they found the decision a difficult one to make”–the matter is somehow still in limbo.
In the end, the agency sounds like a bunch of mobsters when it adds, “Protecting the integrity of our food supply remains our top priority, and Minnesotans expect us to do that job using modern science and the law as our guide.” In other words, jury decisions are for the masses to obey, not us mafioso, as in, We decide what qualifies as “modern science” and we decide which laws we’ll obey and which we’ll ignore.
The MDA is strongly suggesting it need not bother with a jury bound by “the highest burden of proof in the legal system…” I take that to indicate that in the future, it will seek to avoid juries, and stick with its own administrative hearings, along with cases that can be tried before judges–lower burdens of proof required. That means the agency may need to dispense with criminal charges in its harassment of farmers and food clubs, since the U.S. Constitution guarantees a jury trial to everyone charged with a criminal offense.
All in all, it’s going to be interesting to see how the MDA’s assault strategy evolves. It faces at least one serious problem it didn’t mention in its revealing statement, based on the reality that it can’t independently file criminal charges against farmers in court. It must depend on public prosecutors to do its dirty work.
Unfortunately for the MDA, public prosecutors like to win. You may have noticed that the prosecutor in the Schlangen case, Michelle Dossing, refused media comment after the decision. Prosecutors like to bask in the media glow of having convicted dangerous criminals and sent them off to jail, not explain why they couldn’t convict a farmer for providing food to his food club members.
A few more outcomes like the Schlangen case, and the prosecutors around Minnesota won’t be returning the MDA’s phone calls too quickly. Indeed, prosecutors in other states won’t be responding very positively to their ag departments with similar cases as Schlangen’s.
Beyond all that, the publicity about the jury’s verdict threatens to spill over into specifics about alleged MDA misconduct against Schlangen. The MDA doesn’t do well with publicity. Its bitter statement about being above the law isn’t a constructive response. Nor are the facts that have begun to emerge about the MDA’s two-year-plus assault on Schlangen.
As Schlangen recalls the events of March 9, 2011, which led to the misdemeanor charges against him, “The MDA stopped and illegally seized, searched and confiscated the property carried in the private delivery truck belonging to the Schlangen family farm. This action occurred at the foot of a sports stadium at St Paul Macalester College, where a group of students were able to connect with the Schlangen farm for their choice of local sustainable eggs. I was not allowed to deliver the product of my farm to the college group that day. In fact, those very eggs were confiscated, along with fresh farm dairy food that belonged to the members of newly formed Freedom Farms Coop.
“The same day, the (food club’s leased warehouse space) was raided, food was seized as well as packaging material including empty milk crates, even several gallons of used veggie oil that was potential fuel for the delivery rig. With a wholesale value of more than $5,000, this was in fact grand larceny, aggravated and pre-meditated, by MDA officers.”
Now that Schlangen has been acquitted, lots of people would like to see him go on the offensive, and force MDA to compensate him for the property its agents stole, as well as for uncalculated damages caused to Schlangen’s farm and to the food club members.
The MDA will clearly have to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing. The first step would have been to admit that the legal system in the form of a jury has rendered its decision, and regardless of how its officials might feel personally, they intend to comply with the verdict and its spirit going forward. The next step will be to own up to its misconduct and pay up.
The reverberations of the Schlangen acquital already seem to be spilling over to Wisconsin and the upcoming (in January) Vernon Hershberger trial. Hershberger has been charged with misdemeanors similar to those against Schlangen, for serving a food club.
A major campaign is taking hold to spread the word about jury nullification, the right of jury members to vote their conscience and acquit a defendant accused of breaking laws that jurors feel are unjust. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld jury nullification, but judges aren’t required to inform jurors that it is allowable, and in fact, most judges instruct jurors the opposite–that they must follow the law, even if they disapprove of it. An article in a major Wisconsin paper explains how Hershberger backers are working to educate residents of his county about jury nullification.
One of the highlights of the Mother Earth News conference I attended this past weekend was a live demonstration of how to slaughter chickens. Leading the demonstration was celebrity farmer Joel Salatin and a maker of chicken-slaughtering equipment, David Schafer.
It was a highlight for me because, city guy that I am, I have never seen chickens slaughtered. It was definitely a highlight for others as well–about 600 people crowded into the speaking room where the event was held. When Schafer asked how many of them raised their own chickens, about two-thirds raised their hands.
Prior to beginning the slaughter of half a dozen pastured chickens, Schafer spoke about the process as a “sacred moment.” Salatin talked about the “sacrifice” the chickens were making so people could have food.
They explained how they used the kosher/halal method of slitting each chicken’s throat, having concluded it is the quickest and most humane way of carrying out the process. Salatin said he has refused some offers from institutional buyers to supply large quantities of chickens, since he would have been required to gas the chickens. He feels that adversely affects the meat quality.
The process as I saw it seemed as peaceful as it could be. There was no squawking by the chickens, who were each placed into special silos after the throat slitting to keep them from flapping around, and to drain blood. Then they went into scalding water to begin preparing the feathers for removal (just a minute or so, to make sure they didn’t begin cooking), and then into a gizmo that completed the feather removal process. Salatin’s main job in the demonstration was to eviscerate the chickens, removing their internal organs, head, and feet.
I appreciated seeing the demonstration for insights into the “right” way to carry out a task that many in our society would rather not know about it, and also for the effort to convey the seriousness associated with taking life.
Another big hit at the Mother Earth News conference was Max Kane, the Wisconsin food rights activist, and his new venture: an online service that matches farmers, buying clubs, and restaurants with consumers. It’s known as FarmMatch, and it’s currently in beta, if you want to sign up. Lots of people were visiting his booth and signing up.