I need to make a confession about my coverage here of Canadian raw dairy farmer Michael Schmidt over the last dozen years or so.
I had assumed any number of times that his struggle with the courts and public health establishment would recede when the establishment pulled back in embarrassment over the super aggressive enforcement against a committed biodynamic farmer who had, via a perfect safety record, long ago proven his conscientiousness and commitment to healthy food. I had assumed the situation was akin to what we have observed in the U.S. any number of times via enforcement efforts against Amish farmers who sell raw dairy products—the establishment will start off aggressively, haul them into court, and then pull back some when public sympathy builds for the farmers, leaving them to continue operating. Or that it was akin in a number of states, wehn attacks on raw dairy farms led to the legalization of herdshares, cowshares, and off-the-farm sales.
In any event, I was wrong about Michael Schmidt. The Canadian establishment has never pulled back, not a single inch, over the 25-plus years it has targeted him for removal and extinction. It never opened up to any kind of compromise or alternative approach. Sure, it has gone into hibernation for even years at a time, perhaps as new public health officials and prosecuting attorneys have replaced older ones in the bureaucracy. But in the end, the commitment to defeating Michael Schmidt remains as strong today as it was in 1994, when the public health establishment launched its campaign against the idealistic biodynamic farmer from Germany.
I came to that sad conclusion while reading Michael Schimidt’s riveting new book about his experiences fighting the recurring crackdowns on his tiny raw dairy in rural Ontario several hours north of Toronto. The book has the intriguing title, “Raw Milk and the Search for Human Kindness: Overcoming Fear and Complacency.” In addition to his expertise as a dairy farmer, Schmidt is a classical music afficionado, who produces beautiful summer concerts in his barn, and the book is written as an opera, with an “overture,” four “acts,” and a “finale.” There are “interlude reflections” and “musica viva.”
It’s difficult to imagine that a 400-plus page book primarily about court proceedings involving raw milk could be riveting, but it is. As I said in my endorsement on the book’s cover, Schmidt “takes readers on a gripping and often lonely journey through Canada’s legal and regulatory system that has more twists and turns than Alice in Wonderland. In the process, he introduces readers to a cast of characters more colourful than those in The Wizard of Oz.”
For regular readers of this blog, you’ll learn what was going on behind the scenes during Schmidt’s court trials, his more than 30-day protest fast, the case of the disappearing sheep, and who his favorite judge was, among other recollections. You’ll also learn how the legal battle continues, and shows no sign of ending soon.
There are only a few regrets about the book from my position as a reader. For one, I would have liked some background about how it was that Schmidt decided in the early 1980s to move from a family farm in Germany to start a new one in Canada, especially in light of the reality that Germany was much more tolerant and permissive about raw milk than Canada. I would also have liked more information about how the battles he fought affected his family life. Finally, it would be nice if, perhaps in a future edition, he includes an index, to guide the reader who knows about some particular events or people, and doesn’t want to search the whole book to locate information–there are so many names and places mentioned that it cries out for a way to easily locate them.
As I said at the start of this post, I came to a conclusion about what was going on that is somewhat at odds with what Schmidt suggests. He sees his struggle as part and parcel of a global move toward factory farming, together with ever more restrictions on our overall freedoms. I agree that those are factors, but there is one that gets surprisingly little attention in the book: the commitment by Canada’s dairy cartel—the government-sanctioned supply management system that controls dairy farming in Canada—to maintain its monopoly position. That is the only way I can see to explain the nearly endless crackdown, which is an ongoing public relations disaster, on a small farmer; in other words, the only way to explain it is that Michael Schmidt represented potential competition to the cartel. No, not Schmidt alone, but the precedent he represented. With raw milk growing in popularity in the U.S. and Europe, allowing a Canadian producer who had demonstrated it could be done entirely safely was opening the door to a serious competing product. There is nothing a monopolist hates more than competition, or even the threat of competition.
The best comparison I can offer is Microsoft in the 1990s. It came to control the operating system used by nearly all personal computers. Any time a small company cropped up with some software that added functionality to the operating system—say a cool calendar or contacts system—Microsoft would soon build in the same functionality to Windows, with the effect that the small company would be put out of business. Microsoft was determined to maintain complete control of the operating system market, and did so by throwing its business weight around without hesitation, surviving numerous court challenges and even surviving an antitrust challenge from the U.S. government.
Of course, small software companies were welcome to produce software that didn’t directly play off the Windows system. Just as Michael Schmidt is welcome to sell his raw milk quietly, underground, without any official legitimacy. And as he points out near the end of Raw Milk, more and more Canadian dairy farmers are doing just that.
It might seem from the journey Schmidt describes that he fought a losing battle. But that’s not how he sees it. I’ll let you read through to the ending to learn what I mean.
Raw Milk and the Search for Human Kindness is only available directly from the author as a hardbound book, via this link: https://form.jotform.com/201585414305247