James Stewart and Sharon PalmerOn Tuesday, James Stewart, the jailed founder and principal of Rawesome Food Co., was offered a deal by the Ventura County prosecutor: Plead guilty to 14  of 37 counts of fraud and securities violations, and you’ll receive a six-month jail sentence. The two months you’ve  spent in jail will  be  credited to the jail sentence, so in  the end, you’ll  “only” have to spend four more months in jail. Then, you’ll be a free man. 

Could be tempting on one level, given that a judge could mete out up to thirty years in jail time if Stewart is convicted by a jury of all the charges filed against him.  And that Stewart may well  have served close to six months by the  time a jury actually hears the case and renders a verdict. 

The discussion never got to the next step, as to which charges Stewart would plead guilty to, since he immediately rejected the proposal. He’s moving forward toward a  trial, which could  begin by the end of October. 

The charges against Stewart grow out of the acquisition of  the Healthy Family Farms site acquired by Sharon Palmer back in 2008, using funds borrowed from at least seven families, at least some of them members of Rawesome, along with mortgage funds secured from a bank by long-time Rawesome  member Larry Otting. No  deal terms were spelled out at the Tuesday pretrial conference for Palmer, who is charged with 39 counts of fraud  and securities violations  in the same case. 

The prosecutor could come back with improved  terms for Stewart before a  trial begins, just as prosecutors in the Los Angeles County part of the Rawesome case–charges having to do with raw milk distribution– improved terms to Sharon Palmer on the day her pretrial hearing was to begin earlier this  month. She accepted those terms. 

It’s safe to say that defendants in politically motivated raw milk and food rights cases upcoming will be  facing similar kinds  of decisions. Alvin  Schlangen was offered a deal just prior to his trial last week whereby he would plead guilty to a single misdemeanor and pay $200 in court costs to avoid a trial. He chose to go on trial, and we  all know what happened there. 

If and when farmer Dan Brown of Maine “food sovereignty” fame goes on trial, a deal will no doubt be offered to him beforehand. And prior to Vernon Hershberger’s scheduled trial in early January, a deal will likely be offered. 

The  decision as to whether or not  to  take a deal is a highly  personal one. As some pointed out when I suggested Palmer and Bloch got a good deal when they pleaded guilty to single charges and incurred small fines, it’s not me who  has to bear the consequences of the outcome. It’s not me who  has to have a criminal record and  deal with probation officers in the event of a settlement, and it’s not me risking a possible lengthy jail sentence if a jury decides on guilt. 

The plea deal has become a standard part of our criminal justice system–an unfortunate part for the increasing number of individuals being dragged into the system on seemingly minor charges  or, as in the cases I’ve  described here, in politically-motivated  cases. As a result of plea deals, it’s been  estimated that 95% of all cases never come to trial. The  typical approach by  prosecutors is  to pile on seemingly endless charges, hoping  to  intimidate defendants from seeking their right to a jury trial.   The huge number of charges improves  the  chance that,  if  the  case does go  to trial, jurors will bring back a guilty  plea on at least a few charges, and a judge irritated by having to do his or her job will impose a stiff sentence on whatever conviction results. 

It  seems  to me that when you are dealing  with politically-motivated cases, and a system  that has shown itself to be highly biased against you via the politicians, regulators,  and judges, then facing trial offers the only hope of exoneration,  and sending a message to arrogant prosecutors that they should spend their time prosecuting real crime. But as I said, it’s not my rear end  that could wind up  in jail if a jury votes to convict. 

Certainly  the tenor of  the offers being made to defendants like Stewart will provide insight into the confidence levels of prosecutors. The  Los Angeles County prosecutors obviously were loathe to go in front of a jury  with their evidence, given  the kind of  deals they offered Palmer  and  Bloch. 

In the  case  of  James Stewart,  the Ventura County  case is so flimsy, so bereft of solid evidence  that he was  an active  participant in the land deal, that it  would  seem as if a jury would  struggle to convict him. A victory would send a  strong message,  on  a  par with Schlangen’s, that prosecutors shouldn’t be messing with our food. 


As  if to underline the political nature of  the Ventura County case  against James Stewart and Sharon Palmer,  a number of their supporters  have  begun a petition campaign on  their behalf. The  petition,  headlined, “Free  the Farmer & Release  the Milkman”, accuses the Ventura County District Attorney’s  office of “misconduct”  and “unethical  behavior” in bringing  the  case forward. 

The petition and  its  statement of background  information  is  worth reading through  to appreciate the absence of victims in this case.  It’s only been up a couple days, and already has more than 1,000 signers.


Two forums  on  raw milk  are upcoming. 

On Oct. 12,  an evening program examining the political assault on raw milk will be held in Milwaukee. The program, “Raw Milk, is it Dangerous?” will begin at 7 p.m. at the Irish Culture & Heritage Center, 2133 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, and  it is  free. Speakers will include Elizabeth Rich of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Max Kane, an activist, Gayle Loiselle of Nurished by Nature, and Vernon Hershberger, a farmer facing criminal charges in connection with his food club. Hundreds  are  expected; doors open  at 6:30. 

On Oct. 19-20, the fourth International Raw Milk Symposium will  be held  in Vancouver. Sponsored in part by the Weston A. Price Foundation, the event will be  held  at  the Hotel Delta at Vancouver Airport. Registration  is $225 (Canadian).