Most MAGA supporters reinforce their bitter views of the world vicariously, via the thrill of Alex Jones conspiracy theories or the grievance of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson or the anger of Donald Trump.

For a few, though, the ongoing alienation is the result of lived experiences. One of those few is Sam Girod, an Amish farmer from Kentucky who got himself into a boatload of trouble for producing and selling various skin salves made from chickweed, a wild growing herb. I wrote about Girod a number of times on this blog (just search under “Girod”) and how, incredibly, he was convicted of violating FDA drug laws, including selling chickweed as a drug not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He was convicted in a jury trial in 2017 and sentenced to seven years in federal prison (which the judge in the case felt was lenient, since Girod could have been sentenced to more than 50 years).

He was released early in the covid pandemic to house arrest to complete his term earlier this year, and he’s just published a book about his experience, A Good Life Interrupted. It’s a highly readable account of how he was investigated by FDA agents, put on trial, convicted, and then shuttled around to serve his sentence in several federal prisons. It’s a very sad story, in large measure because of all the upset and losses endured by Girod and his large family of children and grandchildren.

What makes it even sadder for this reader is that Girod squandered a major opportunity to challenge the FDA’s opaque drug laws and regulations, along with its arbitrary enforcement process in going after basically honest people like Girod. Compounding this missed opportunity is his positioning of himself as a victim of massive government corruption rather than as a farmer who naively hoped government lawyers and judges would see the errors of their ways in going after him and declare him innocent, or at least not sentence him to anything more than the six months he served prior to his trial.

He backed up this hope by failing to engage lawyers to represent him through the entire trial and sentencing process, a failure that many people, myself included, tried very hard to get Girod to reverse himself on. As Girod says in the book:

“When I finished the case without a lawyer, I received a lot of criticism for this decision. Upon reflection I can see how I should have done things differently; and if I had them to do over, I probably would do them differently. Yet in our attempt of nonresistance and peace, of our loyalty to truth, I attempted to stay true to what I knew to be the truth. I just didn’t feel comfortable using a lawyer.”

The problem for those of us fighting for food rights is that the fight isn’t always a matter of what makes you “comfortable.” It’s a matter of exploiting the leverage conferred on a defendant confronting government prosecutorial arrogance along with a weak case like that against Girod to fight back, and win gains for yourself, and  for other farmers. Girod wouldn’t have needed to pay for top legal help, since significant funds would have been raised for his defense. A talented legal team would have dramatized the weakness of the case against Girod in front of a jury of his peers, likely helping them to empathize with his victimization via government overreach.

All we need to do to understand the opportunity is recall another case similar to Girod’s—the criminal prosecution of Wisconsin dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger in 2014. Hershberger, who was from an Amish background, was inclined to go the ‘sovereign citizen’ route like Girod, until just before his jury trial, when he finally decided to take the advice offered by many supporters, to get real legal help. With assistance from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, he engaged a top trial lawyer, and beat the pants off the Wisconsin regulators. (For more information, search under “Hershberger”.)  Not only have Wisconsin regulators since steered clear of going after farmers like Hershberger, but regulators around the U.S. backed off, and there’s been much less legal and regulatory friction for raw dairy farmers around the country as a result of this one case.  

 That gets us back to the MAGA perception of the world—that all such screwups by the system are evidence of massive corruption that can only be fixed by…..Presumably by some all-knowing dictator. In Girod’s acknowledgents, he thanks a number of people who tried to get him a pardon from former President Trump near the end of his term—just further naivete when there was no way Girod could make the kind of financial contributions expected by Trump (and many other presidents) to get a pardon.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I liked the book a lot, because the author is authentic and tells a compelling story. But it is a story with a frustrating ending because Girod took the MAGA path of bitter grievance instead of the enlightened path of smart defendant standing up on behalf of a real cause.

Our legal system provides the accused with many more tools for exoneration than nearly any other country in the world—primary among these tools being our jury system. But one needs expertise to take full advantage of them. Sam Girod’s failure to use them in effect let the FDA off the hook when it should have been so badly embarrassed it wouldn’t so easily again commit heavy resources to going after an honest salve maker.