A few weeks ago, we learned that Amish farmer Amos Miller was found in contempt of federal court for allegedly failing to abide by U.S. Department of Agriculture rules about meat production. He’s been fighting variations of this battle for years, but most recently it’s been focused on the private food clubs he’s helped establish around the country, which provide grass-fed farm-slaughtered meats.
The message the USDA has clearly been trying to communicate via the example of Amos Miller is that small farms need to play by its rules, which make on-farm meat production pretty near impossible, along with distribution of all kinds of other foods directly from farm to consumer.
More on Miller a little later in this post, but if you look around at some other legal and political battles ongoing, the situations become less threatening, and instructive.
Take Maine. I was one of the first food writers to report on Maine’s Food Sovereignty movement back in 2010. That’s when a small group of coastal farmers decided, after being threatened with extinction by the food safety regulators trying to prevent them from slaughtering their own chickens, to seek “food sovereignty” on a local town-by-town basis. They started with nothing but an idea, and the desperation that comes from seeing your livelihood about to be snatched away by unfeeling and uncaring bureaucrats.
Fast forward 11 years, and Maine’s Food Sovereignty movement continues to lead the country in promoting small-farms and private food sales. Heather Retberg, one of the originators of food sovereignty, continues to push the mushrooming movement that has seen 87 Maine towns pass food sovereignty ordinances and the state adopt a food sovereignty law. Now, the entire concept is moving ever closer to being fully enshrined as a constitutional amendment.
And then there’s Vermont and John Klar, who has the unusual advantage of being both a farmer and a lawyer. He first appeared on this blog in 2016 promising civil disobedience if Vermont went forward with plans to shut down on-farm slaughtering.
He hasn’t had to carry out his threat, but he has been leading an intense legal and legislative fight on behalf of on-farm slaughtering.
Last year, he wrote a lengthy letter to Vermont’s agriculture secretary, in which he said in part: “I am not a loose cannon: I am a rabble rouser. By this I mean that I was never alone in my defiance of your department, nor am I now. I passionately support small farming and its communities, and I comprehend that I am uniquely placed: small farms cannot afford legal counsel; lawyers lack the insight and passion to advocate for farmers, and they won’t work for free. I told Bobby Starr and his Commission last year that if they did not give us small farmers the right to sell halves that I would challenge the State in Court, and I am now poised to do that.
“I believe in sugar before vinegar: I believe that good lawyers settle cases. I also believe that there is a bird-in-hand for both your Department and Vermont’s small farms, a win-win adjustment that will allow me to walk happily away and your Department to look like the friend to farmers and their consumers that we all wish it to be. Many people have told me you are a great person and I should give you the benefit of the effort of this letter. So I am laying some cards on the table in the confident hope that you will consider my proposal for resolution. I will explain here: 1) the legal issue, as simply as I can, and 2) my imminent plans to launch a public relations and legal campaign against your Department, and how that might be forestalled…”
Eventually, the department blinked, as Klar wrote me a few weeks back: “The sunset provision for on-farm slaughter was repealed…. This was a huge win for our small farms — now we can’t keep up with the demand for processors and product…. I never had to fire a shot — never spent a dime on attorneys.”
Back to Amos Miller: A federal judge overseeing the case, Edward Smith, has been trying for several years to nudge the parties toward a compromise, but the task is extremely tedious and difficult. It’s possible a compromise might be achieved very shortly, Miller told me today, but it’s also possible there won’t be a compromise and Miller may face thousands in fines, and have to shutter his meat operation. The lesson? It may be that the only realistic option for Miller’s brand of private food is to follow the upstarts in Maine and Vermont, and go local, very local.