I inquired with Michael Schmidt last week about doing an interview to follow up on the rejection of the latest legal initiative in Canada designed to get some relenting on the government’s long-term ban on raw dairy. I wondered about his state of mind, what he might have done differently in orchestrating the case just dismissed by the Ontario court, what he is mulling for the future.  

Supporters of raw dairy demonstrate outside an Ontario courthouse where Michael Schmidt was facing charges, in 2016.

For the first time since in the more than ten years I’ve been writing about his and the Canadian struggle over raw milk, he didn’t even bother to respond. I can appreciate why. While I don’t know for sure, I presume that after 27 years of battling for raw milk rights, he’s worn out, worn down, and more than a little pissed off. On Facebook, under a link to my blog post about the case’s outcome, he wrote: “No comment. We are doomed.” He added that an appeal has already been filed.

For a man who spent years simply seeking some rational discussion, and possible compromise about raw dairy—who even went on extended hunger strikes to call attention to the perceived injustice of banning raw dairy– it must be unbelievably dispiriting to realize at long last that, in a democratic country based on governing via consensus and compromise, on this issue the official response continues to be rigid and absolute: no discussion and no compromise….with not even the slightest indication that the outcome will ever be any different.

One of the questions I wanted to ask Schmidt is whether he ever has second thoughts about having left a farming life in Germany for farming in Canada in the 1980s. Was it a mistake to leave Germany, which has much greater tolerance of raw dairy than Canada? Or should he have come to the U.S., which has developed much greater tolerance for raw dairy than even Germany during the last dozen years, when Schmidt has been banging his head against the brick wall that is Canada’s legal and regulatory systems?

I’m not usually a big fan of coulda, woulda, shoulda exercises, but the Canadian conundrum on raw dairy is an exception. I think it’s worth assessing why Canada, which appears so much more progressive than the U.S. on a variety of matters, ranging from race relations to legalization of marijuana to availability of health care, is so stuck in the dark ages on a matter of food freedom. It’s certainly a complicated subject, one no one can answer with certainty, but to me, the key difference has less to do with rigid public health communities, which at heart are pretty much the same in the Canada and the U.S., and more to do with non-health considerations. Indeed, I’d offer three primary reasons the U.S. has been more flexible on this subject, and they have nothing to do with public health conspiracies:

  1. America’s capitalist system, which gives so much consideration to the power of the contract. It’s the power of the contract that has smoothed the way for mechanisms like herdshares and cowshares. Canada, with its European orientation, has been less free-market oriented, and thus more receptive to a socialist-type dairy program that guarantees income to dairy producers, even to the extent of penalizing consumers via higher prices. Canadian dairy farmers have made out much better than American dairy farmers economically. But because America isn’t stuck within a similar rigid economic system, its dairy farmers theoretically have more realistic options in a marketplace of declining dairy consumption, which include getting involved in selling raw dairy, switching over to other kinds of farming (like beef farming, which a number have done); or else exiting dairy farming and contemplating new careers.
  2. Antiregulatory inclinations of the U.S. From the very beginning, when the U.S. Constitution was being conceived in 1787, the emphasis was always on pushing regulation as far down to the local level as possible. That’s why individual states determine whether and how raw dairy should be regulated (with more than 40 now accepting raw milk in some form or another), and a wannabe dairy “czar” like the FDA’s John Sheehan can be pushed to the fringes. Canada, by contrast, essentially turned raw dairy regulation oversight over to its socialist farmers. They, understandably, want to limit competition in the fiefdom the government established for them. So the regulators simply parrot the farmers’ desires–no raw milk to possibly infringe on our sales.
  3. The jury system. It’s difficult to exaggerate the impact of the Vernon Hershberger 2014 jury victory in a state (Wisconsin) that had pretty much banned raw milk to the same extent as Ontario. American judges are much like Canadian judges—inclined to favor the government/regulation side–and so it would have been for Vernon Hershberger had a judge had the final say. But a jury trial is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution to Americans charged with a felony. And the ordinary Americans who serve on juries are much more inclined to back the small guy, the rebel who is clearly being set upon by arrogant government regulators or police. That’s how the former football star O.J. Simpson got off in 1995 from the murder he clearly committed—black jurors couldn’t forget about all the times black defendants have been railroaded into prison, or hangman’s nooses, for crimes they didn’t commit. Similarly, Vernon Hershberger was let off by jurors who’d seen enough examples of farmers screwed by a corporate system friendly to Big Ag.

I can appreciate that there’s little I can say to ease the despair of injustice felt by Schmidt and his many supporters. I do sense their struggle hasn’t been in vain, but unfortunately it will take further work for victory to be declared. Maybe it will take a Mark McAfee-type end-run to get raw dairy cleared as pet food in Canada. In the meantime, my advice to Schmidt and his supporters would be to resist the temptation to see the raw milk debacle as indicative of a global conspiracy or similar. Instead, it’s the result of an unfortunate confluence of causes and conditions coming together to create a brick wall of resistance to simple human flexibility and compromise.