Crying Over Raw Milk: An Amish Farmer Confronts a Government Edict

During the four months I’ve been writing about the strange case of the Michigan and federal government campaigns against Michigan’s Family Farm Cooperative, there is one person who has remained carefully situated in the background: the Indiana Amish farmer who with his 70 cows supplies the cooperative’s raw milk, David Hochstetler.

I had not mentioned his name until yesterday, in response to his wishes, conveyed by his lawyer, to stay out of the public eye. He decided to lift the veil of confidentiality in the last few days, in part because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made his name public in its warning letter to him earlier this week, ordering him to discontinue distributing raw milk via “interstate commerce" (described in my previous post).

As part of his decision to go public, Hochstetler agreed to speak with me. Yesterday we spoke for the first time, and today we had another conversation.

What I heard was a man experiencing a great deal of anguish.

For one thing, there is the anguish of a father who fears that an overbearing government may sabotage his dream to bring one of his sons into the dairy farm business. Hochstetler is 48 and has eight children, four boys and four girls. Four of his children are grown and married and have left the farm in Middlebury, Indiana, for other lives.

But his fifth child, a 20-year-old son, “is now showing a big interest in the farm and taking over when I retire,” says Hochstetler.

Being involved during the last few years with the Family Farm Cooperative, along with a second cooperative in Chicago, is what has stimulated father and son to think this way. Because Hochstetler is making his milk available directly to consumers via the cow-share arrangement, the farm is taking in about triple the revenues of a few years back, when Hochstetler sold his milk the conventional way, via processors.

If he has to end his involvement with these cooperatives, he may well have to tell his son that their dream of passing the farm on to the next generation was actually a pipedream, and instead sell his land in chunks to developers.

Another part of the anguish Hochstetler is experiencing has to do with the tremendous satisfaction he experiences from the benefits his milk provides. “My son and I, we ride along to the dropoff points in Chicago, and we get to meet these people” who are consuming the milk. “A lot of mothers say how their children had asthma and allergies and they tried everything the medical profession had to offer and nothing worked till they tried raw milk.”

The most touching story he says he’s heard has been from a man whose wife has multiple sclerosis. “She’s tried everything that medical science has to offer, and none of it works. Her physical therapist told the husband that every time she drinks raw milk, she is stronger. He told me, ‘This is all I’ve got.’”

“Hearing all the appreciation they have showed for this product has put new meaning into our occupation. They thank us from the bottom of their hearts.”

Hochstetler doesn’t know where the FDA’s warning letter will lead. Most immediately, he’ll write the agency back and “tell them we think this is not in their jurisdiction and that this lease program is not interstate commerce.”

One final note: Because Hochstetler is Amish, he lives without electricity, and the various conveniences it enables, such as computers. As a result, he says he hasn't seen anything that has been published about the Family Farms Cooperative case. (I promised to send him a packet of printouts.) But that just seems to add to the irony of this situation--a family holding onto the best of American values by involving family in tending the land--is being pushed to the edge by the very government that is supposed to protect those values.