Minnesota raw dairy farmer Michael Hartmann died in January. Hartmann became a folk hero in the Minneapolis area for standing up to state public health regulators who raided his delivery truck and farm on numerous occasions between 2010 and 2014 to halt his raw milk deliveries. Hartmann was a soft-spoken burly man who communicated most forcefully via his defiant actions and written legal briefs justifying his legal right to sell raw dairy products directly to customers.

A Minnesota regulator looks over coolers filled with raw milk that had just been confiscated from Michael Hartmann’s delivery truck in 2012.

Though he experienced legal setbacks, he never gave in, such as when a judge ruled that the confiscation of a large shipment of his food products was legal because his milk likely sickened eight people In 2010. In 2012 he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and paid a $585 fine in connection with the sale of raw milk to blunt an effort to charge his wife in the case. In 2013, he got the last word of sorts when a state judge threw out charges against him because his delivery truck had been searched illegally. ““No matter how frustrated this Court or the State is with his disregard of the law or his word, the violation of (Hartmann’s) constitutional rights can neither be tolerated or condoned,” Judge Erica H. MacDonald wrote in her conclusion. The state seemed to back off from pursuing Hartmann after that.

Interestingly, the obituary posted by his family in January makes only an oblique reference to his legal battles: “He extensively studied about the law and legal freedoms.” That’s it.  It says that family members run the dairy, and a customer tells me it still produces raw dairy for loyal customers.

Why would Hartmann’s family refrain from mentioning his strongest legacy (beyond the family he leaves behind)? The only reason I can think of is that they don’t want to dredge up his valiant resistance against regulatory overreach for fear of getting the regulators re-fixated on the family and its raw farm products.  

I probably shouldn’t make predictions, but I doubt the regulators will bother the Hartmann family. Not only do they probably not want to hear the family name because of how he humiliated them legally, but they also don’t want to upset the current state of détente  that exists for raw dairy, in Minnesota and much of the rest of the U.S. Hartmann is one of a number of dairy farmers around the country who stood up for their right to sell their farms’ raw dairy products. By standing up, via legitimate legal arguments—for example, Minnesota has a clause in its constitution permitting farmers to sell their products directly to consumers–Hartmann gave legitimacy to other Minnesota farmers, as well as farmers in other locales.  

I would just say, with all due respect, that Hartmann’s family should be proud of his efforts to legitimize raw dairy. I say this as someone who didn’t always approve of Hartmann’s defiance, especially when illnesses from his milk were alleged. But in the end, my likes and dislikes didn’t really matter all that much. What mattered was that our legal and regulatory systems, as inconsistent and contradictory as they can sometimes be, worked, not only for Hartmann, but for dozens of other farmers and many thousands of Americans, who now have access to raw dairy. Just look at the map of the U.S. here, and you’ll see the remarkable truth: 49 out of 50 states now allow legal raw dairy in one form or another, whether via herdshares or direct sales from the farm or pet food or even via sale in retail food stores.

This 2021 map from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund shows 49 of 50 states allow raw milk sales in some form or another; only New Jersey still bans it completely.

America’s regulatory systems worked—not perfectly and not without some unfortunate casualties in places like Wisconsin–but they worked. They worked because of the bravery of farmers like Hartmann, the activism of many consumers who publicly protested crackdowns on raw dairy, the creation of the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI) to educate farmers on raw milk standards, the persistence of this blog, and the flexibility of enough regulators, and because of the transparency that underlies our regulatory and legal systems. I know there will be groans on that last point, but it’s important to acknowledge it, given our current polarized political environment.   

It’s difficult to comprehend, but when I began writing about raw dairy back in 2006, two of the largest states in the country—Ohio and Michigan—had a total ban on raw dairy. Other states that ostensibly allowed raw milk sales undertook heavy-handed campaigns to restrict it or even stamp it out, from Georgia to Maryland to Massachusetts to Illinois.

I still occasionally hear from farmers whose raw dairy operations have been temporarily shut down by regulators who have found listeria in milk samples. The farmers invariably start out thinking they want me to ‘expose’ their awful situation, but then when they mull further getting into a protracted regulatory and legal struggle, like Michael Hartmann did, they back off. And it turns out to be a wise decision, because invariably, the regulator problem clears up, and the farmers go back to selling raw dairy.

A few farmers continue various  legal battles to open up or maintain raw food channels. There’s John Klar, a Vermont cattle farmer, who has written here and continues to contest his state’s expanding restrictions for on-farm slaughter of cattle. In California, Mark McAfee continues a long struggle to legalize interstate sales of raw butter. In the meantime, his sales of other raw dairy in California continue to surge.

It’s fashionable to trash our regulatory and legal systems as being unresponsive to small farmers, and certainly big corporations still hold sway over much of the food system, backed by cooperative regulators. But farmers like Hartmann made it work, by studying the law and standing up to the powerful biases in our system. There was no whining about liberal judges or elites or conspiracies or vote fraud or any of the other staples of our current perverted and polarized politics. Hartmann was actually a quite private individual, who rarely responded to media requests for interviews (including mine). I only met him once, and he was polite and soft spoken, expressing confidence in his legal standing.

But thanks to his efforts, owners of small sustainable farms around the country are producing healthy food, and have learned to work within the system and are thriving. They set an important example for our larger political system….that freedom and democratic processes, imperfect as they are, can and do work. They help prove out the old two-cow joke that compares political systems:

You have two cows.

Under socialism, the government takes one and gives it to your neighbor.

Under communism, you give both cows to the government and the government gives you milk.

Under fascism, you give your two cows to the government and it sells you milk.

Under naziism, the government takes the two cows and shoots you.

And under American-style capitalism, you sell one of your cows and use the proceeds to buy a bull.

Michael Hartmann had to push hard to make American capitalism work for him, but in the end, it did, and he’ll long be remembered for his efforts.