It is painful to read some of the comments following my previous post, especially the back-and-forth accusations between Califarmer and Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. about herdshares in California. (Please note, you need to go to the bottom of the first comment page, and click on one of the little squares to go to the second comment page, to find these particular comments; a new page starts up after 100 comments.)

Clearly, the dissension that regularly comes up here has been allowed to interfere with sensitive discussions and negotiations going on with the California Department of Food and Agriculture over standards and possible regulations of the hundreds of raw milk herdshares in that state.

Michael Schmidt captures some of the frustration many of us feel when he concludes, in exasperation, “We have the freedom to take measures to prevent disasters and to prove that guidelines and standards are helping to distinguish those who do want to understand the complexity of food safety. Currently it appears that we do support Marler in his mission to prove that raw milk should be banned. Not because it is more dangerous, but because we are more divided on the philosophical approach to freedom than united on the issue o understanding the current climate of food safety.”

I would add that the frustration is compounded because I know that people like Califarmer and McAfee are serious well-meaning people. They desperately want to avoid a repeat of the Foundation Farm situation in Oregon, and its illnesses affecting children. They want to do what is right, for consumers and farmers alike.

Part of the problem certainly is that people have very strong opinions about where safety problems originate and what to do about them. But beyond differences of opinion, there seem to be difficulties getting organized, of working cooperatively in groups. We see that clearly in Califarmer’s chronology of events in presenting guideline proposals to CDFA. There’s a he-said-she-said quality between him and McAfee that is destructive in any number of ways, most immediately in the fact that it reduces the confidence of the regulators in the commitment of the people doing the negotiating.

It’s tempting to want to stomp my feet and demand, “Let’s get our act together!” I definitely think that Schmidt’s suggestion to form a task force of raw dairy experts, outside of any existing organizational situation like the Raw Milk Institute, is a constructive one.  Surely there must be a band of raw milk brothers (and sisters) who are willing to organize themselves to pioneer here.

It’s not going to be easy. I get the sense that too many farmers and food providers have worked below the radar for so long, they are having trouble getting used to the fact that the bright lights of regulator. legal, and media attention are now focusing very directly on them. Many are accustomed to working informally, both in running their own operations and in their dealings with consumers. Beyond the sad situation in Oregon, it comes out in any number of other ways.

As for the heightened media and legal attention…

The New Yorker magazine, that intellectual bastion of culture, humor, and fiction, has just come out with a highly sympathetic profile of the Rawesome Food Club and its accused, the Rawesome Three (James Stewart, Sharon Palmer, and Victoria Bloch). Much of the focus is on Stewart, the likeable and committed manager of the private membership organization that was shut down last August in the aftermath of a mammoth nine-agency raid.

The profile should, in and of itself, be a breath of fresh air to the raw milk and food rights movement. The New Yorker has journalistic credibility from its nearly 90-year history, and it reaches more than 400,000 subscribers. (Unfortunately, The New Yorker is very protective of its content, and only makes most of its current issue available to subscribers, who must pay $60 annually, or individual articles can be accessed for $6, so I can’t post the piece. Here is a link to a summary of the article. In addition, the Out Loud section of The New Yorker did a podcast about raw milk that features interviews with me and a scientist from the University of California, Davis, Michele Jay-Russell.)

The article use the Rawesome situation to examine the controversy over raw milk’s history, benefits, and safety. It’s curious in that author Dana Goodyear is one of the first to examine closely the culinary aspects of raw milk, portraying it as a gourmet food, with one prominent chef commenting, “When you take milk or cream and pasteurize it or homogenize it, you’ve killed the originality.”

It praises the quality of Rawesome’s food, quoting a former member: “Rawesome was a gourmet club par excellence of the best food you could get from anywhere in the world.”

It traces the bizarre regulatory and legal history around Rawesome, which has been described in depth here. It points out that Rawesome members continue to quietly obtain and distribute raw milk and other good food, though much more secretly than they did at the old Rawesome site on Rose Street in Venice; Goodyear compares the new distribution of raw dairy and other nutrient-dense foods with that of marijuana. The Rawesome site has since been dismantled and leveled in the aftermath of the two multi-agency raids on the 2000-plus-member club in 2010 and 2011.

Amazingly, though, nearly simultaneously with this much-needed media boost, Stewart has been hit with yet a third set of criminal charges, and these could be the most serious of all : ten felony counts related to his alleged failure to file California income tax returns for five years between 2006 and 2010.

The first set of charges, filed last August, involved mostly offenses related to the distribution of raw milk, and involved potential penalties of five to ten years in jail. The second set of charges, earlier this year, related to Stewart’s alleged role in encouraging a few Rawesome members to loan money to farm owner Sharon Palmer; penalties there could be more than thirty years in jail. This third set of charges could result in possibly nine years in jail, according to a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

The only good news in the new charges is that the prosecutor’s office didn’t order Stewart arrested, as he had been in the previous two sets of charges, based on his having been cooperative in appearing for other court dates.  He can now surrender himself at a May 17 arraignment on the new charges.

Stewart told me he considered the new charges “completely ridiculous, not true.” He said the statutes he is accused of violating “have to do with a corporation. I have nothing to do with any corporation.” He added that he had just received a copy of the complaint, and needed to study it further before providing more detail of his views.

The reason I say that this set of charges could be the most serious is that it is often difficult to refute charges associated with income tax violations. And the legal system tends not to be sympathetic to tax evaders. But given the circumstances of these charges, well, it’s hard to know what to take seriously.

Goodyear in closing her New Yorker article quotes Sharon Palmer’s lawyer about the second set of fraud-related charges: “The charges do not contend anything at all relative to the food produced at the farm. But it is my firm belief that the prosecution has everything to do with raw milk. There’s too consistent an approach to the prosecution not to see it as a coordinated effort.”

As I said, the light of media, legal, and regulatory attention is focusing ever brighter on farmers and food producers.  It’s in everyone’s interests to get more organized.