Brigitte Ruthman received her cease-and-desist notice from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on Tuesday via regular mail. On Thursday, she had a visitor. An MDAR inspector, Sheila Phelon, stopped in at Ruthman’s Joshua’s Farm to personally leave off another copy of the C&D…even while a certified envelope containing yet a third copy of the order still awaited at a local post office.
Interestingly, Ruthman was home all day on Thursday, except to go out for an hour. It was during that very brief absence that Phelon was on the farm. What else did she do besides drop off the order? Not clear. It was rattling to Ruthman, as you might expect. “That seems awfully quick for them to show up.”
Now, who knows if it was just one of those things that Phelon missed Ruthman, but one thing seems eminently clear: The MDAR is sending very strong signals in its actions, and they aren’t pretty. But that’s how it is during warfare: the aggressors send signals via their actions. They may massacre some soldiers to try to demoralize other soldiers. Propaganda blitzes are the norm.
MDAR has declared war on raw milk producers and consumers in Massachusetts, with strong encouragement from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This hasn’t been done casually. Believe me, the regulators think very carefully before they declare war, and then equally carefully about the signals they send as part of their assault plan.
We may think of raw milk as small-potatoes stuff, but the regulators know it’s an emotionally charged issue. Many are determined to stamp out raw milk, but they know they have to be careful they don’t inadvertently create a hornet’s nest on the order of what they created last May in Massachusetts, with their threats to shut down all buying clubs, which had been operating for years with MDAR knowledge.
Showing up at Ruthman’s farm two days after she received the C&D, and publicly expressed her outrage and commitment to resist, was a signal of intimidation. The regulatory equivalent of torturing some prisoners of war. A signal that there’s much more to come where that came from, so she may want to think twice about being a rebel.
But there was another signal as well. This was a signal to the Northeast Organic Farming Association. I’ve made some disparaging remarks about NOFA-MA on this blog, including in my previous post.
Basically, NOFA-MA has a problem. It has positioned itself as being the insider guys with access to MDAR. It got advance word three days before a planned demonstration and hearing on raw milk in May about MDAR’s decision to withdraw a proposed regulation. NOFA-MA rewarded MDAR by advising its members not to attend the hearing, without any commitment of a quid pro quo–and in the process took some of the air out of the rapidly expanding balloon of outrage then developing in Massachusetts. The demonstration and hearing went off, but certainly with fewer people than would have been there. It was classic divide-and-conquer strategy by MDAR and it worked to some extent.
Then in June, NOFA-MA breathlessly issued a statement from MDAR (not published anywhere else) about the agency’s supposed plan to indefinitely delay implementation of any new regulations against buying clubs, partly because it didn’t have the resources. Another implicit endorsement of MDAR activities, but one suggesting weakness. (Hey, guess what, the enemy has agreed to stop bombing us for a few months, after which they may bomb us harder than ever.)
Why do I bring up all this seemingly small-time insider organizational stuff? Because it contains important lessons about the usefulness of collaborating with the enemy.
During warfare, governments are merciless on their citizens who collaborate with the enemy. Remember the case of the “American Taliban”? He’s still rotting in jail.
MDAR launched its assault against Ruthman two days before the biggest event of the NOFA-MA year–its annual summer conference, including a Friday morning symposium on raw milk. The signal? Something akin to what governments sometimes do to spies who have lost their usefulness, and were never fully respected. They pull their cover, and let the enemy figure out how best to kill the offender. MDAR obviously feels emboldened to do whatever it wants now that NOFA-MA helped blunt the May activities. If things get hot again? Well, it may come back to NOFA-MA whisper sweet little nothings.
In the meantime, what could be more humiliating to NOFA-MA than for MDAR to flagrantly break its promise of a letup in enforcement activities, two days before the organization’s biggest event of the year?
Not surprisingly, the NOFA-MA leadership didn’t even mention the Ruthman assault during the three-hour raw milk symposium. Finally, during the Q&A at the end, I brought it up, and questioned Winton Pitcoff, the NOFA-MA raw milk point person, publicly about whether NOFA-MA had known about it in advance. He said NOFA-MA hadn’t known about it, and wasn’t pleased about it.
Now, I don’t want to paint myself as a hero here. There are any number of people in NOFA-MA who feel I’m being destructive in hanging out the organizational dirty laundry. Pam Robinson, an owner of Robinson Farm in the middle of the state, told me I was being “divisive.” She said my blog had become discouraging to her because it seemed so negative. She feels that NOFA-MA has been a “true friend” to Massachusetts raw dairy farmers, even if its May collaboration was an error.
I agree that NOFA-MA was a true friend, but the emphasis is on “was.” Being an insider was helpful when MDAR was being constructive, in the years before 2010. But once MDAR declared war on raw dairy farmers this year, being an insider became a loser’s game.
This is serious stuff. People’s livelihoods are at stake. I don’t pretend that fighting back is a guarantee of success. I do know that among the few examples we have, the resistance in Michigan of raw milk consumers and dairy farmers following on the 2006 Richard Hebron assault (described extensively in my book, The Raw Milk Revolution) is instructive. Consumers and farmers were united in their resistance, and eventually convinced a district attorney and the Michigan Department of Agriculture to take a more constructive approach. Today, there is more cooperation in Michigan between regulators and consumers on raw milk and other agricultural issues than in nearly any other state.
So I don’t criticize NOFA-MA to be spiteful or divisive. But we all know well that appeasement is not the way to respond to a powerful enemy lusting for destruction.
Aside from the above mentioned problem, the NOFA-MA Raw Milk Symposium was an informative affair. In addition to talks by Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation (about the health benefits of raw milk) and Pete Kennedy (about raw-milk-related legal activity around the country), a panel of three Northeast farmers provided insights into their experiences fighting for food rights.
“You have to be vocal,” said Chris Newton, a Connecticut raw dairy farmer, in recounting how he successfully pushed back against regulators who wanted him to re-do his recently refurbished milking parlor and barn. He also described how Connecticut farmers, consumers, and legislators united in successfully fighting an effort by agriculture regulators in 2008 to prohibit retail sales of raw milk, which have long been allowed.
Lindsay Harris, a Vermont raw dairy farmer, told a delightful story of how she took on a microbiologist in a debate before a meeting of the Vermont Dietetics Association, and came out with many converts–in part because she used The Raw Milk revolution in preparing her PowerPoint presentation. ?