Sharon Palmer has achieved a level of fame in the food rights movement. She’s been raided four times since she moved to the Healthy Family Farm location in Ventura County, the most recent one having taken place August 3, when she was one of three individuals arrested in connection with the Rawesome Food Club roundup.
Kristin Canty’s movie, Farmageddon, features Palmer breaking into tears as she describes the seemingly unjustified raids on her farm.
But there has always been an undercurrent of concern and distress about Palmer and her motives. Those came up in comments when I wrote about the Rawesome Three just a couple weeks ago. Much of the concern stems from allegations made by food rights activist Aajonus Vonderplanitz that Palmer outsourced eggs and chickens that were made available to Rawesome members.
When I was in Los Angeles last week, I discussed the outsourcing accusations with Palmer, who said she could explain everything. She said she has been hesitant to go public because of an ongoing legal problem from the time she moved to Healthy Family Farm, in which local authorities filed charges against her for producing goat cheese without a permit.
She denied she was outsourcing chickens, but said she did outsource eggs for six or seven months in 2008 and 2009…with the partial knowledge of James Stewart, Rawesome’s manager.
Shortly after she moved to Healthy Family Farm in 2008, “We had a mountain lion kill 1,000 egg-laying birds,” she said. They comprised half her egg layers.
“James knew I was buying eggs. I bought the best eggs I could find, for seven months…None of this was secret.”
James Stewart confirmed her story about the mountain lion. He recalled going to the farm immediately after the attack on the hens. “I followed a trail of feathers up a hill. It was like a snowstorm had hit the place.”
It takes about six months to re-build egg layers, so that is why the outsourcing went on so long, she says.
But Stewart says he didn’t understand that Rawesome was receiving outsourced eggs for the entire seven month period. Stewart says he understood that for about two weeks, Rawesome would be receiving outsourced eggs, after which Rawesome would be getting its eggs entirely or nearly entirely from Healthy Family Farm. He says he understood that the outsourced eggs came from an area producer of organic eggs, Nichols Ranch, which sells under the brand of Chino Valley Eggs. At the time, the eggs were produced by chickens fed soy-based feed, says Stewart, though the producer’s web site says it now produces eggs from chickens fed soy-free diets.
Stewart says he told Rawesome members who inquired when they first saw the Chino Valley boxes that the eggs were outsourced. What about members who didn’t inquire? “I should have put up a sign,” Stewart told me. “Yes, I should have. Did I have intent not to put up a sign? No.”
Stewart now attributes what Palmer is saying to “a misunderstanding. Maybe she told me that the majority of eggs would continue coming from Nichols, and I didn’t understand.” In fact, says Palmer, the farm’s own reduced egg production was going to supply area farmers markets she serves, where there is a requirement that farmers only sell their own products.
“It was three years ago,” says Stewart. “It was not a big deal. Those were organic eggs. Did I make a mistake? Yes.”
As for the re-packaged chickens Vonderplanitz complained about, Palmer said she used outsourced chickens to compensate laborers on her farm. She was often able to acquire large quantities of mass-produced chickens that restaurants hadn’t picked up, at rock-bottom prices. The practice of compensating farm workers with food is a not uncommon practice. And because Palmer was able to negotiate good deals on the chickens, she was, in effect, saving on her compensation costs. “This is how pig pens and chicken runs were built,” she explained.
She also said she used the outsourced chickens to provide food for Moveable Feast activities (sometimes known as “Drop in the Bucket”), to which she contributes. It focuses on providing water to schools in Africa.
Stewart told me that in his experience working with food producers, the outsourcing issue with Sharon Palmer wasn’t unusual. In a number of cases, the producers are simply dishonest. “I have been lied to by cheese makers, who said their cheese was raw and organic, and it wasn’t. One supplier told me he made his cheese by heating it to 105 degrees for fifteen minutes, when it turns out to have been 140 degrees for two hours.” There have been producers of raw honey who heated their product higher than they claimed; he had to discontinue working with them.
He added that it’s his dream to re-open Rawesome with some kind of a laboratory to test products–to determine if they use GMO ingredients or have pesticides or are truly raw, among other tests. “That will solve a lot of problems,” he said.
Still and all, as Stewart suggests, the Palmer outsourcing wasn’t handled in a transparent way by any means. Rawesome members should have been fully informed about what occurred at the farm. After all, predator attacks on chickens aren’t uncommon.