Four Ways to Light Up the Darkness for Food Rights
This blog has chronicled seemingly endless abuses of power against farmers merely trying to do what farmers have done for centuries—grow food and sell it to friends and neighbors.
It seems at times as if few beyond those directly affected are paying attention, especially when those in authority wield their powers with an iron fist. We have seen arbitrary decisions, like the court injunction placed on Maine raw dairy farmer Dan Brown that drove him out of farming, and the huge fine and other regulatory actions against Michigan farmer Mark Baker that destroyed his hog business. South Dakota late last year tightened rules against raw milk at the behest of regulators.
Yet, in all these places, and others, we see signs that farmers and their customers are gaining adherents, making the old power structure shake and bend. They are doing it using old-fashioned tools and new techniques alike to publicize these injustices, and they are doing it with increasing skill.
I thought it would be useful to run through the techniques food rights proponents are using to influence growing numbers of people, with growing effectiveness.
Old-fashioned political organizing. Take Maine, The gubernatorial veto of legislation allowing very small farms, like that owned by Dan Brown, to sell raw milk directly to individuals created a huge backlash against a governor who wanted to be seen as friendly to farmers. Now, the farmers and consumers who organized for Food Sovereignty ordinances in ten Maine towns and who organized for the doomed legislation last summer, are at it again, fighting for the same legislation the governor vetoed last summer.
Lo and behold, a number of the opponents to last year's legislation have changed their tunes, reports Heather Retberg, one of the organizers of the legislative initiative, as well as the Food Sovereignty ordinances in effect in ten towns. Those singing a different tune at a legislative hearing this week include the Farm Bureau and the Cheese Guild—formerly opponents to helping small dairies to sell raw milk without the need for permits. Even the state Department of Agriculture is now in favor, which suggests the governor may well be on board as well.
Similar organizing efforts are going on around the country. In Massachusetts, a campaign is under way to legalize raw milk in the small town of Groton. In South Dakota, a serious legislative effort is under way to loosen restrictions tightened last year. In New Jersey, where legislation to legalize the sale of raw milk from farms was defeated last year, a new legislative effort to allow sales from dairy farms is being revived. And in California, a couple of years of negotiation between owners of small dairies involved in herdshare arrangements, and state agriculture officials, has led to introduction of "home dairy farm" bill in the Assembly; it would "authorized farm families in California to exchange, share, or sell limited quantities of raw milk produced at a home dairy farm that is in excess of household needs..." via less regulation than necessary for permitted dairies.
Leveraging the legal system. We know that judges tend to accept the opinions of regulators over farmers and their supporters. But we may have begun to see a shift in the Mark Baker case in Michigan, where the judge showed sensitivity to the rights of the farmer, so much so that the state was afraid to try the case. The best example we have of how the legal system can be helpful is last spring’s legal victory by Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger. He left his fate in the hands of a dozen of his fellow citizens, who quickly understood what was happening, and not only acquitted him of all licensing charges, but saw several join his food club.
The effect has been to freeze Wisconsin’s campaign against raw dairy farmers. Sure, it’s not an end to the the dairy industry campaign against raw milk farmers, but it is a shift.
Keep that video camera handy. Michigan hog farmer Mark Baker was accused by some of fomenting violence because he owned guns, but in reality he became a force to be reckoned with because he aimed video cameras, not guns, on regulators seeking to carry out their corporate agenda. He had been producing periodic videos for months prior to the fateful hearing last month that wound up sanctioning his raising of supposedly “feral” pigs, in contravention of a new state regulation.
But the use of a video camera by his supporters to capture the now famous assistant attorney general, Harold Martin, threatening him has turned into a near scandal for Martin’s boss, Attorney General Bill Schuette. Now we learn that a political opponent has this week declared his candidacy for Michigan attorney general. I don’t know anything about Schuette’s political opponent, but I do know that Schuette won’t be helped in his re-election campaign by repeated showing of the assistant AG telling Baker, “You don’t get it, do you.”
Exploit the social media. The substantial crowds that turned out for hearings on a Maryland raw milk legislative proposal as well as a Massachusetts town’s efforts to tighten raw milk regulations (Foxboro) didn’t just happen by accident. Much of the outpouring was due to the skillful use of social media—by activist Liz Reitzig in Maryland and a variety of supporters of MA farmer Terri Lawton in MA.
Supporters of Mark Baker used Facebook to enable the video of Harold Martin to go viral, and now the Michigan Attorney General’s office has been so deluged with calls its officials are reportedly asked people to file their complaints via email instead.
Yes, farmers and their supporters are getting the hang of what it takes to fight back. They are learning to use the tools that were part of their subjugation. There is a long way to go, and there will be defeats along the way. But, as Heather Retberg put it to me, “the ground has begun to move.” It has begun to move because brave farmers have stood up and let their stories be told. They are telling those stories more skillfully than ever and, unbeknownst to organizers, lots of people have been listening, and learning.
The tools are there. More people are worried about their food, and want good food. The word is getting around.