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Latest Targets of State and Federal Regulators Are Family Farms Sharing Unprocessed Milk


By Mike Blair

The plight of family farmers is well documented in this country. Dairy farmers have been hit especially hard by regulators and multinational food conglomerates, which have conspired against them to reduce their price at the expense of quality.

In a recent case, a group of family dairy farmers, who banded together to fight back by offering the highest quality, unrefined product to consumers, was subjected to the kind of treatment reserved for illicit drug dealers.

In this age of almighty government, nearly every blade of grass is regulated, oftentimes heavy-handedly, as Michigan farmer Richard Hebron found out when the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA), on Oct. 13, 2006, carried out a highly orchestrated sting operation against him for transporting unpasteurized, unprocessed milk of the highest quality to enthusiastic consumers. That day, his wife also was served a warrant in the dragnet.

Hebron spoke with AFP Feb. 27, recalling that state police and federal officials pulled his truck over during his weekly milk delivery to an Ann Arbor distribution site, served him a search warrant for his truck’s contents and confiscated 453 gallons of raw milk. At the same time he was stopped, a state police officer and four plain-clothes agents served his wife, Annette, with a search warrant on their farm, seizing their computer, records of all cow shares, cow-herd release agreements, all stored raw-dairy products, the rolodex and several other items.

“Later that afternoon, in Ann Arbor, four additional agents, also armed with a search warrant, rummaged through a warehouse that was Hebron’s destination when he was pulled over, seizing more business records,” according to an account by David Gumpert, a Business Week columnist who has been closely watching this issue.

Hebron manages the 5-year-old Family Farms Cooperative (FFC), a private membership co-op. He leases a herd of 70 cows owned by Amish farmer David Hochstetler in nearby Middlebury, Indiana. It is against the law to sell “raw milk”—milk that has not been subject to pasteurization—to
American consumers. To get around this, FFC members buy shares in the herd in order to receive the raw milk for personal consumption. It is considered to be the highest quality milk produced, and no retail sales are involved.

Michigan State Police and Agriculture Department officials were opposed to the program, so they set up an elaborate scheme to shadow Hebron in the summer and fall of 2006, keeping tabs on his weekly truck hauls of raw milk from Vandalia, Michigan to Ann Arbor, an east-west trek of about 140 miles. The MDA even hired an undercover agent to infiltrate the group that deals with Hebron.

An MDA warrant noted that the raw milk was tested by the MDA several times, confirming that the milk was indeed raw—and of the highest quality. And an affidavit left with Mrs. Hebron cited an instance of illness among the children of one of the co-op member families as a reason for the investigation. This was not true, however. The illness had occurred in the spring of 2006 but could not be traced to raw-milk consumption. The affected Ann Arbor family had missed the previous week’s raw milk delivery and had purchased pasteurized organic milk from a grocery store.

Three days later all the children became ill with gastrointestinal symptoms. Chinese food was the assumed culprit, Hebron said.

When it comes to policing raw-milk distribution, Ohio perhaps has even surpassed Michigan in going after farmers who might make it available in any form—as pet food, via herd-share leasing programs, or even giving it away.

David Cox, a Columbus lawyer, said authorities are treating raw milk like it’s heroin or crack. According to Cox, who has been active in several Ohio cases, a common element is an apparent sense of “vindictiveness” by Ohio’s Department of Agriculture (ODA).

“There has been a huge outcry,” Sally Fallon, of the Weston A. Price Foundation, told AFP on Feb. 26. She added that the Michigan attorney general in recent years issued an opinion that the MDA has no jurisdiction over cow-share arrangements. Michigan law only gives officials the authority to ban retail sales of raw milk and related dairy products, not to ban co-ops from sharing raw milk among members.

AFP also contacted Ann Arbor attorney Steve Bemis, who has helped the Hebrons legally and also is a raw-milk consumer, due to his FFC membership. What’s particularly noteworthy is that Hebron, despite the Oct. 13 search and seizure operation, still has not been charged with a crime and is delivering raw milk to this day, Bemis said.

“If they can’t come up with anything in five months, there must not be much of a charge,” Hebron told AFP. The federal Food and Drug Administration also got in on the act, sending a warning letter to David Hochstetler, an Indiana dairy farmer who supplies the Family Farms Cooperative with raw milk. According to Bemis, the FDA’s regulation of milk sales, under the timeworn “interstate commerce” clause that regulators read into the U.S. Constitution, comes from case law—not a statute—in this instance from a 1987 Public Citizen lawsuit that forced the FDA to regulate interstate milk sales.

Fallon told AFP that the Weston A. Price Foundation midwifed the creation of what activists see as an important weapon to help family farmers fight back against bureaucratic meddling—the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, modeled after the well-known Home School Legal Defense Fund. The web site,, is under construction.

Today, there’s a patchwork of laws out there: Eight states allow retail sales of raw milk: California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Two-thirds of the states allow sales right on the farm, though a retail state isn’t necessarily an on-the-farm state.

Raw milk can be obtained via herd-share programs in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia. This is all for human consumption, and can be for pet consumption. Raw milk can be purchased as pet food in Florida and North Carolina, yet North Carolina doesn’t allow herd-sharing, nor does Utah.

Raw milk can be bought on the farm in Utah. And California-based ships raw milk anywhere, but only as pet food.

(Issues #10 & 11, March 5 & 12, 2007)

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Updated March 2, 2007