Got (Raw) Milk?


By: Talia Gordon

Families gather in Queen’s Park to demand access to local food

Families gather in Queen’s Park to demand access to local food

Geoff Vendeville

Protesters and supporters met and rallied outside Queen’s Park on Tuesday to demonstrate their solidarity with Michael Schmidt, an Ontario dairy farmer whose ongoing fight for the right to produce and distribute raw milk has launched a critical national conversation about the control and regulation of local food. Currently, it is illegal to distribute raw, (unpasteurized) milk in Canada. In a powerful move to call attention to issues around access to raw milk and other food-access rights, on October 1, 2011, Schmidt began a highly publicized hunger strike.

Schmidt is the owner of Glencolton Farms, in Durham Ontario, and has been producing and distributing raw milk for over 17 years. Originally from Germany, Schmidt holds a Master’s degree in agriculture, and was trained in the tradition of biodynamic farming, a holistic and highly sustainable method of organic agriculture that treats farms as ‘closed’ organisms. A strong advocate for small-scale farming and cow-sharing programs, Schmidt has actively lobbied the provincial government for years to legalize raw milk and to enhance people’s ability to choose what, and how they want to eat. He has proposed his farm as a pilot project for small-scale farming models, and has offered to teach and train others in how to run a sustainable, organic enterprise.

However, the Ontario provincial government has rejected Schmidt’s proposals outright, and has refused to open up dialogue regarding the issue of raw milk and the right to access local food. Schmidt’s farm has been raided twice, once in the early nineties and again in 2006. He was subsequently charged with illegal distribution of unpasteurized milk. His acquittal on all counts was appealed by the government, and the earlier acquittal overturned.

Beverley Viljakainen, a close friend, supporter and self-described “grass-roots healthcare advocate” was at Glencolton Farms during the 2006 raid. “More than 20 armed men descended on the farm like gang-busters,” she says. “They confiscated dairy equipment, computers, files and all of the milk, which was later dumped in the toxic substance area of the local landfill.” While it sounds almost theatrical, these kinds of raids happen regularly to local farmers all over Canada and the United States.

In a recent New York Times Magazine feature, food-guru Michael Pollan addressed the raw milk controversy south of the border. He writes, “How is it that cigarettes are legal in this country while, in most cases, raw milk can’t be sold in stores?” Pollan asks why governments direct so much energy into shutting down this “teeny-tiny industry”, when factory farms pose many more serious threats to food safety.

Viljakainen echoes Pollan in expressing similar frustration and confusion. “They raid chicken farms and egg ladies while Maple Leaf regularly has to pull products off the shelf. But they don’t get shut down.” Interestingly, as Pollan points out, the majority of dairy-related illnesses come from pasteurized products.

It is because of these issues that Schmidt has taken such a strong stance and extreme measures to bring the raw milk debate to the table. Well into the fourth week of his hunger strike, Schmidt shows no sign of backing down. According to Viljakainen, he will only break his fast when the Ontario government agrees to discuss ways to legalize and regulate farm-fresh milk.

As Viljakainen explains, “It’s a constitutional matter now, since consumers should be able to contract with their local farmers and are being prevented from doing so.” She points out that for Schmidt, it’s not just about the milk, but is a matter of people’s rights to make informed decisions about the foods they eat. “We’re fast losing our right to be able to even have whole foods, and what is more basic than that?” asks Viljakainen.

Schmidt’s campaign has been met with overwhelming solidarity and support across Canada, the United States, Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. For many, access to local and non-industrial produce represents more than simply a nutritional preference.

In an open letter on The Bovine website, Indianna dairy farmer Mark Grieshop writes that “[Schmidt’s] hunger strike reasserts the primacy of the individual’s natural right to feed themselves however they choose, and proves that nourishment is not a function of the state that can be mandated or revoked at will.”

The goals of the raw milk crusade are manifold, and are encompassed by a greater push for libertarian freedom when it comes to food access and ultimately, having the choice to assert control over one’s own health.

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