Over nearly two decades of fighting for the right to access raw milk, Michael Schmidt has become legendary for his persistent promotion of dialog with reluctant regulators and politicians. He went on a hunger strike last fall that he ended after five weeks when his demand for a personal dialog with Ontario’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, was granted.
In recent days, he has undertaken a new, even more sensitive, dialog challenge. He is seeking to turn an aggressive investigation into scrapie among a herd of rare Shropshire sheep into an opportunity for dialog designed to re-examine how farm animal illness is handled and how rare genetic strains might be protected.
What makes this challenge so sensitive is that Schmidt has been targeted by investigators from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), suspicious about his possible involvement in the disappearance of 31 sheep from an Ontario farm last April. They mysteriously vanished–taken into “protective custody” by the Farmers Peace Corp, according to a note left behind– after authorities targeted them for slaughter because they were thought to possibly harbor scrapies, a fatal degenerative disease that can spread among sheep and goats. The sheep’s disappearance prompted a huge search by authorities going door-to-door in the area and using helicopters. Some 26 of the Shropshire sheep were re-discovered at another farm earlier this month.
Based on reactions and questions from the investigators, he expects to be formally charged with criminal misconduct before long.
He appeared to anticipate the new developments in a video statement last week, when he denied direct involvement in the affair, but said , I am aware that I, as a consequence to my public statement, might be subject to an investigation and possible charges related to the sad sheep saga. I am determined to support the brave work of those who have risked their personal safety and security to try to protect those sheep with the hope that conclusive evidence would have been provided by the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) in order to return the sheep for orderly slaughter if found infected or for further testing Whatever will evolve I am honored to be a part of this brave action, as I have taken on the role as liaison for the Farmers Peace Corp.
At the end of last week, two investigators from the CFIA showed up at Schmidt’s Ontario dairy farm and “were threatening,” says Schmidt. “One of them said, ‘Your travels are over, Mr. Schmidt.'” There was also talk that “we will quarantine your farm for forty years.” One thing that was very clear was “that they have been watching my every move and travels and every thing I have written on the Internet. It is also very clear that they are weighing their strategy how to silence me and if silencing me might create an even bigger problem.”
Schmidt tried to turn this potentially very serious confrontation into an opportunity for dialog. “I made a point of inviting them this past Wednesday to my house for a meeting.”
When two investigators and a state veterinarian showed up on Wednesday, the tone had improved, says Schmidt. What helped were negative test results from the 26 sheep seized by government authorities earlier in the month. However, five sheep are still unaccounted for. The investigators “think the missing sheep are the contaminated sheep,” Schmidt told me.
Schmidt says he tried to improve the atmosphere further by asking the investigators to remove their shoes before entering his home, and by having a container of raw milk on a table. One investigator helped himself to a couple glasses of the drink.
He says the investigators came to his house “with the understanding that I would give a statement revealing details about the Farmers Peace Corp. I however made it very clear that one of the codes of the FPC is that before you reveal anything you commit to rather being charged yourself with all the consequences. That seemed to make them extremely nervous. I pointed out that the principle is based on peace and dialogue as the name indicates. After all, the name is NOT ‘farmers underground army’.”
As for the discussions, “They urged me to arrange a meeting between the FPC, which I left open with the suggestion that I will try but doubt that it will lead to anything unless the government is prepared to look at adjusting policies in regards to erasing genetic diversity to save commercial breeds.”
There was some disagreement about the FPC’s role in moving and hiding the sheep. The investigators were concerned because scrapie “is so highly contagious,” said Schmidt. He noted that the FPC, from the very beginning of the episode last April, had sought to engage the government in discussions about more effective ways of dealing with serious disease in farm animal herds aside from immediately targeting certain breeds and slaughtering all the animals.
His goal going forward: To keep the dialog going and “prevent a political show trial.”
Most far-sighted ideas take time to gain acceptance. Sometimes it’s a crisis that finally gives impetus to the idea.
So it is with the Raw Milk Institute. Now, more than a year after the concept was raised and heavily debated on this blog and elsewhere, RAWMI seems to have settled down and will hold its first farmer training session July 23 in Oregon. The crisis that seems to have pushed it along toward wider acceptance was the outbreak of serious illnesses from E.coli 0157:H7 earlier this year at an Oregon dairy.
As a result of the illnesses, the dairy industry has sought to push politicians to tighten restrictions on access to milk in the state. Mark McAfee, who originated RAWMI, reported in a comment following my previous post that he expects as many as 100 participants at the upcoming training session. One Oregon farmer, Charlotte Smith of Champoeg Creamery, has been outspoken in promoting the RAWMI effort.
Smith wrote on her farm’s blog recently: “The Department of Agriculture at this time does not offer support or advice, other farmers are too busy, so most of us just read a book and buy a cow! Then what? Unfortunately, on the way up that learning curve, there is so much opportunity to make people ill. I am committed to doing all I can to help get a group organized and funded that will offer resources to raw milk producers in Oregon and also show Oregon Dairy Farmers Assoc. and Oregon Department of Agriculture that we are committed to producing safe and clean raw milk…”