Minnesota is a major power center for Big Food in the U.S.–corporate giants Cargill, General Mills, Hormel and Land O’ Lakes all have their headquarters in the state. If agribusiness had its way, there would be zero competition for the industrial food system from local food; as it is, Big Food’s allies in the state government bureaucracy enforce regulations that are more about preserving the industrial food system’s market share than protecting the public health. A great example of this would be the investigation of dairy farmer David Berglund by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).
MDA began investigating Berglund five years ago and, as far as is known, is still continuing its investigation of the farmer. To date, it is estimated that MDA has spent a staggering 1.5 million dollars ($1,500,000) investigating Berglund, someone who has never had anyone file a complaint against him over the food he produces.
Berglund produces raw milk, raw butter, raw yogurt and other nutrient-dense foods at his farm in Grand Marais, up near the Canadian border, and only sells those products at his on-farm store. Dairy farming is more of a calling than a business for Berglund, he keeps the price for raw milk at five dollars ($5) per gallon to ensure that those with limited finances can still get the product.
Berglund and MDA became embroiled in a dispute over whether the department had jurisdiction to inspect his farm. There is a provision in the Minnesota Constitution that states, “Any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor.” MDA’s contention was that this provision only exempted Berglund from licensing requirements, not from other mandates (e.g., inspection) in the state food and dairy code. From 2015-2017 Berglund and MDA were in a court battle over the department’s power to inspect Lake View Natural Dairy with the courts ultimately siding with MDA.
Since that time, MDA has inspected the Berglund farm and, as far as is known, has found no violations in the farm operations. No matter–MDA will spend whatever it takes to make an example of Berglund, trying to create a chilling effect to discourage other farmers from standing up to the department over their constitutional right to sell and peddle the products of the farm.
Aside from Berglund’s claim that MDA has no jurisdiction to inspect his farm, the other issue of contention between the farmer and MDA is what products of the farm Berglund can legally sell. MDA’s position is that since Minnesota statute only allows the sale of raw milk and cream then sales of foods like raw butter and raw yogurt are illegal. The statutory ban on raw butter is an example of a law that is not about protecting the public health but rather about economic protectionism–specifically, the profits of the dairy processing industry.
The foodborne illness database of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) goes back twenty years; during that time, there has not been a single outbreak attributed to the consumption of commercially produced raw butter.
What is needed in Minnesota is for the state Supreme Court to revisit its 2005 ruling in Hartmann v. Minnesota. In that case the court ruled that the constitutional provision on selling and peddling the products of the farm only exempts farmers from licensing, not from other regulatory requirements such as inspection and that farmers could only sell foods whose sale was allowed by statute. The Hartmann ruling ignored the historical context of the constitutional amendment which passed in 1906. At the time the amendment passed, the state did not inspect or otherwise regulate farms; the licensing requirements the amendment prohibited were intended to raise revenue, not to regulate farms. In 1906 all raw dairy products were legal products of the farm; what the Hartmann court did in holding a food like raw butter was illegal to sell was to say that a statute controlled over the constitution–an interpretation of the law that had it backwards.
One farmer looking to have the Minnesota Supreme Court take a second look at the Hartmann decision is Mike Hartmann himself. If MDA has spent $1.5 million investigating Berglund, it has spent at least several times that on the Hartmann case. Since 2000 MDA has at various times raided Hartmann’s farm, his vehicle, his dropsites, harassed his customers, seized food and equipment, brought a court action to destroy Hartmann’s food and had criminal charges brought against him. On two different occasions a court has ruled that MDA seized property and equipment from Hartmann through an illegal search and seizure.
Hartmann is currently suing MDA and individual MDA officials for, among other remedies, return of seized equipment, damages for seized food, damages for violations of Hartmann’s state and federal constitutional rights, and a court order enjoining “the state from interfering with the private transaction between Hartmann and his consumers for the sale and exchange of products of the farm.” The amount of money the state of Minnesota has spent on the Hartmann case will continue to increase.
The corollary of the state constitutional right to sell and peddle the products of the farm is the right of consumers to obtain those products. MDA and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recently spent taxpayer money interfering with that right when they raided the private food buyers club, the Uptown Locavore, on May 3 embargoing thousands of dollars of nutritious food produced by local farmers; MDH still has not made a decision on how it will dispose of the embargoed food. State law requires that a government agency either petition a court to destroy the embargoed food or release the food; unfortunately, the law does not impose a time limit on an agency to make this decision. The lack of a statutory deadline enables the bureaucracy to, in effect, condemn food without a court order, waiting until a food’s “shelf life” has expired before making its decision. Raw milk embargoed by MDH at the Locavore went bad a long time ago.
MDA’s enforcement actions against the distribution of locally produced nutrient-dense food when there have been no complaints amounts to a form of corporate welfare for agribusiness. Unless there is a legitimate accusation about the distribution of adulterated food, MDA would do better to save the taxpayers money and honor food freedom of choice.