By Susie Zahratka and Kathryn Niflis Johnson
The case the State of Minnesota has built against Alvin Schlangen dates back to June 2010, when the Schlangen farm was searched following the raid and subsequent closure of the Traditional Foods Warehouse. In 2011, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) inspected Schlangen’s farm vehicle without a warrant. The MDA then illegally seized food owned by members of the private food club, Freedom Farms Co-op. The food was valued at thousands of dollars. The charges against Mr. Schlangen include lack of food labeling provisions, distributing unpasteurized milk, operating without a food handler’s license, and handling adulterated food.
Alvin himself is an egg farmer from Freeport, Minnesota, who founded and manages Freedom Farms Co-op, a private food-buying club. For some time the MDA has been cracking down on raw milk farmers around the state and although the purchase of raw milk in Minnesota is legal on the farm, the agency is systematically finding ways to shut down raw milk producers and scare consumers away from seeking its purchase.
The question of whether a food-buying club, owned by the members themselves, can function both as a privately contracted entity and act as an agent of an individual for the purpose of obtaining raw milk is addressed in the case of the State of Minnesota versus Alvin Schlangen.
Smiling faces, hugs and children happily playing—is this the scene of a family reunion or a playgroup? No, this is the scene each of the four days outside the courtroom where friend, farmer and buying club manager, Alvin Schlangen, sits, listens and waits as a jury of six decides whether or not his efforts to connect families with nutrient-dense foods will land him in jail.
On Monday, September 17, the trial begins. The courtroom is packed as Judge Robert M. Small reviews court processes and procedures. Defense lawyer Nathan Hansen and prosecution lawyer Michele Doffing work out specifics to do with wording allowed to be presented to the jury.
The food labeling provision charge against Alvin is dropped and Alvin is offered a plea bargain that includes a reduced jail time as well as two hundred dollars in court fees if he pleads guilty to any one charge. Without hesitation, he responds, “No.”
As jury selection begins that day, there is a strong sense of optimism in the air. This trial, we know, is one that will make history. As the jurors are chosen many of us retire to the hallway just outside the courtroom to allow our children to play, call supporters with news, and share in some food.
By the end of the day, the jury is selected and the trial begins with the prosecution calling on the arresting officer and also James Roettger of the MDA, who is involved in this case as well as the one against farmer Michael Hartmann (see Wise Traditions Fall and Summer 2012 for background on Hartmann’s case). Both witnesses are expected as they serve to structure the argument against Alvin.
In the evening, supporters, friends and members gather at a nearby park for a potluck supper. Many of us know one another from past events. We share stories about the day and compare notes regarding jury selection and the prosecution witnesses. As we leave the park that evening we feel confident that the goodness and integrity of the man and the honesty of his mission will prevail.
Tuesday is a big day for the prosecution. The MDA is called upon to educate the jury about the dangers of raw milk. The prosecution tries to paint Alvin as a money-hungry businessman intent on creating a comfortable cash flow for himself by selling expensive (and dangerous) food. In her opening statement, prosecutor Michelle Doffing stated, “This case is about a man. A man who chose his business over public safety.”
As Alvin sits there in his Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) tee-shirt and jeans, I have doubts that the jury buys the story. Even so, as two Freedom Farms Co-op members take the stand to establish the ways and means of the co-op, many of us wonder how their testimonies will stack up against those of the MDA.
Before we break for lunch, the judge remarks that he has never seen so many “unfidgety” children in his courtroom. One supporter couldn’t help but respond, “It’s the raw milk!” The judge replies, “I didn’t hear that.” But he did. He notices. The jury notices. We notice. Where else would one find a gathering of equal parts children to adults to support a man on trial?
Most of the same faces gather day after day, sitting in the courtroom, convening in the hallway or playing on the grassy knoll outside. It is a clear indication that this is not the trial of someone who is in it for the prosperity. This is the trial of a man who knows the law and, recognizing its shortcomings, created a volunteer-owned club that serves its members through private contracts between people who hold in common the value of nourishing food.
The day ends with Nathan calling Alvin Schlangen himself to the stand. Alvin patiently sorts through countless pictures taken by the MDA during the searches of his delivery truck, his farm and the warehouse space where the food for the buying club was stored. He identifies those he can and rejects those he can’t. A number of times he is presented with pictures that show the sign on the side of his van as well as that on his rented warehouse space, which reads “Private.” At first I wonder about the purpose of these questions but as Nathan proceeds, I realize that Alvin is having the chance to explain his mission, the background of the co-op, its focus and procedures of operation. The jury is finally receiving a glimpse of the man we all know and love, not the greedy business owner as painted by the prosecution who is unconcerned about the effects of his choices. The protection that he builds into the co-op for the farmers whose milk we drink makes certain that if anyone is to “go down” for this, it will be Alvin himself and not the Amish dairy farmer just trying to support his family in a sustainable way.
Again that evening we gather to recap the day. As many supporters are unable to attend the trial, our end-of-the-day celebrations give the chance for people to connect with those in court and show their support for Alvin. Day two ends and we all go home, a little more tired than the day before, but still hopeful.
Before we know it, it is day three, the last scheduled day of the trial. As Mr. Hansen concludes and the defense rests, Ms. Doffing questions Alvin, pointing out what she sees as inconsistencies from the co-op website: Alvin’s claims of selling organic eggs and yet not being certified organic, asking how prices charged for milk and eggs compare with those of the grocery store, the website showing a picture of chickens roaming in the grass versus in the empty cage that was found at the warehouse. Alvin attempts to explain that certified organic isn’t the gold standard; rather, beyond organic is his vision and that he has no idea what grocery store prices are because “I don’t shop at the grocery store” and that yes, sometimes chickens are kept in cages with sawdust at the bottom when they are temporarily on display for an event. The prosecution then rests also.
I catch the expression of one of the jurors and it mirrors my thoughts. That’s it? Where’s the case for blatant disregard for the law? Where are the complaints? Where is the proof of harm? Although I feel fairly confident that none of these allegations exist, I assumed there would be some attempt at showing that the co-op is a danger to society or, at the least, in violation of the law.
The jury begins deliberations on Wednesday afternoon at about three. Supporters and friends surround Alvin in the hallway and Alvin, as usual, is upbeat and calm as he proclaims that no matter the verdict, the co-op will keep running on volunteer hours. He contends that he can easily live, even thrive on raw milk for the duration of any jail time he receives, but he also gives credit to the jury, fully expecting them to be fair.
Just a few minutes after deliberations begin, the lawyers are called back into the courtroom to answer the question posed by the jury, “Are cow leases legal in Minnesota?” The prosecution answers that she has no idea and Nathan offers his opinion if the judge will allow it. The judge, however, declines Nathan’s offer and responds that the jury “has all the laws they need in front of them.” Some supporters interpret this response as unfair as there is currently no law concerning cow lease arrangements in Minnesota. However I interpret it as giving careful clarity. Since cow lease by members is part of the defense argument, the lawfulness of it is critical to the case.
There is no verdict reached by 4:30 that afternoon and the jury goes home with a plan to reconvene at 9:30 the following morning. The potluck this evening is intimate with just a few of us in attendance. Still the discussion is lively as we plan our next moves as a community. It is clear as we hug one another goodbye that no matter the verdict, the friendships that we have fostered are stronger than ever, and our trust and respect for each other are unbreakable.
On Thursday morning at 9:30 we form a support circle in the hallway. Children play with Legos as the adults hold hands and offer prayers, thoughts, and visions for the outcome of the trial as well as for the food freedom movement itself.
Lunchtime comes and goes. As usual for this group, people share what they’ve brought from home: dried meat, hard-boiled eggs, ferments, veggies and, of course, raw milk.
At 1:20 that afternoon one of the two reporters in attendance exits the courtroom with the words we are waiting for: “They have your verdict.” The clerk comes out and makes it official. As we gather up the children and our belongings, we all realize that this is it. Aware that the entire country is waiting along with us, we sit as the jury files in and the clerk stands to read the verdict.
Charge one: not guilty.
Charge two: not guilty.
Charge three: not guilty.
Stunned silence for a second and then gasps and cries of joy as we surround Alvin in the biggest group hug most of us have ever been a part of. A few of the little ones, unsure of what was happening but wanting to be a part of it, throw their arms around each other, hugging and kissing. We walk out of the courthouse into the open arms of more supporters. Phones come out and the good news spreads like wildfire. Alvin calls his wife and in that moment of complete joy, Alvin smiles, his blue eyes twinkling and reports, “Well, somehow she knew already. She’s. . . happy.”
What a surreal moment for us; a group of people accustomed to operating outside of the societal norm by standing up for what we believe, trying to educate others and bring back the ways of eating that we know can nurture and heal an undernourished population. That we had a group of six individuals with no vested interest in our cause make the decision that yes, we do have this right to nutrient-dense foods from the food co-op and that the state’s interpretation of Alvin’s actions are subjective, is not just a victory for us but proof positive that people are awake. They are opening their eyes to what is happening in our state and country.
This is great news for us, of course, but it’s also a reminder that the gravity of the food situation in this country is bigger than us. With the country watching, our responsibility is of the utmost importance to educate peacefully and spread the positive messages about clean, traditional eating, sustainable farming and building community. This noble and responsible task cannot be taken lightly. Leaving the courthouse that day, we all brainstorm about how best to fulfill these responsibilities.
So what do foodies do when they celebrate? Why, they eat of course! For the fourth and last time that week, we gather for an impromptu party at the park. The energy we bring to that potluck cannot be matched. Hugs are both our greetings and our goodbyes. We went into the courthouse on Monday as friends and acquaintances. We came out on Thursday united as family.
Of course the story doesn’t end here. Shortly after the acquittal of Alvin, the MDA issued a statement in response to the jury’s decision: “We respect the role of the jury in the legal process. However, we strongly disagree with this ruling. The law on this matter is clear, and the jury was tasked with making a narrow finding of whether, in their view, the state had provided sufficient evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions of Alvin Schlangen violated state law. This is the highest burden of proof in the legal system, and the fact that the jurors deliberated for as long as they did shows that they found the decision a difficult one to make. This narrow ruling does not wipe away the fact that many children and adults have gotten dangerously sick from consuming raw milk. It also does not wipe away the other legal rulings that have upheld MDA enforcement actions. Protecting the integrity of our food supply remains our top priority, and Minnesotans expect us to do that job using modern science and the law as our guide. We will continue to work in their best interests.”
Although we, as a traditional foods and freedom-supporting community, may have issued a similar statement had Alvin been convicted of the charges, there is one huge difference. In their statement, “we” represents a relatively small group of bureaucrats while the jury, by design, represents the general population. If a sampling of people from the general community felt that the law was clear, why did deliberations only take three to four hours? What is the narrow ruling to which the MDA is referring? If the decision was based on the majority, which means four of the six jurors voted to acquit on all charges. If you do the math, the minimum percentage of agreement to acquit is 62.5 percent. That’s worst case scenario. I’m not sure in what case that percentage equates with a narrow margin.
The tide is turning here in Minnesota and, I believe, across the nation. Will we see these as headlining news stories or front-page articles? Probably not. Or at least not for long. The reason of course is because stories like Alvin’s are proof of the human spirit; proof that in a society where many people don’t even know their neighbors, and certainly aren’t willing to stand by them in times of crisis, there is a slowly but steadily increasing number of people who are changing the paradigm. Seek out those who you stand with in your freedoms, food or otherwise, and join us. We would love to meet you.
“We are working to send the transcript of the Hennepin County trial to the Admin Law judge for consideration in his decision to make summary judgment on this complaint from MDA, regarding the private versus business aspect of our club. FTCLDF is involved in this case as well as the Stearns County case that is very similar to our recent win. A pre-trial hearing was set for November for the Stearns County case, with a plan to enter a motion to dismiss for lack of cause as the similarities between the two cases, even though almost a year apart, are numerous. It is my hope that before Christmas of 2012, we will have moved away from the entanglement of this energy-draining, yet challenging situation that came from a collective movement toward health independence, and concentrate on sharing our lives and spirit with our extended family. Please, consider your part in the growth and reach of FFC. As we approach two hundred members, we plan to split this club into two and move forward with an unlimited potential for building a new food system in this country and adding economic security to this foundation for food security. We could use some help with communications, bookkeeping and just plain research of new sources and options for products and services that will support our growing family of members. If you are able and willing, we will offer incentives (such as food at cost) for those who volunteer their talents. As we move forward with an eye on access for all, without regard for financial equity, we allow those with abundant resources to help those on their way. Thank you all, Alvin.”
Susie Zahratka is a stay-home mom of two children, ages five and nearly three, with a third child due in May. She has been active with her family in the real foods community in Minnesota since 2010, including lobbying for raw milk legislation change and hosting traditional foods events to build community.
Kathryn Niflis Johnson BSN, RN is a natural health educator in Woodbury, Minnesota. Please see her website www.optimalhealthconnection.com.