Francis M. Pottenger, MD and “The Hazards of a Health Fetish”January 1, 2002
Consolidation in the Dairy IndustryFebruary 1, 2002
The city of Toronto spreads out from its center as an inundation of asphalt and grey rooftops, punctuated by soul-numbing high-rise apartments. Gradually the city gives way to farmland, dotted with small towns and pleasant farms, a land of richness and variety. The farms are attractive and well ordered, with old-fashioned barns and silos in good repair. The only jarring note is the occasional pile of old tires cluttered against the outbuildings. Follow the road northeast through the town of Durham and eventually you arrive at Glencolton Farms with its stone farmhouse, compact farmyard and painterly vistas.
The owners are Michael and Dorothea Schmidt who purchased Glencolton when they came to Canada from Germany in 1983. Michael Schmidt is an innovator and an activist. He grew up in the Waldorf education system and has a master’s degree in farming. His entire practical training took place on certified organic farms in Germany.
In 1978 Schmidt started a biodynamic organic dairy farm in southern Germany. This farm became the first certified organic farm with cheese processing facilities and today cheese from this farm is distributed throughout Germany. Three years later, Schmidt helped establish the first biodynamic organic farm in Egypt, supplying breeding stock for dairy cows. Today this Egyptian experiment is a flourishing research center and community farm. In recent years he has helped train Russian farmers in the principles of biodynamic farming and has participated in a research project in China.
Once in Canada, Michael introduced spelt to North America and participated in joint research projects with Guelph University, offering the farm for annual farm tours for the students from Guelph. He founded OntarBio Organic Farm Products, Inc. and Saugeen Highland meats to market certified organic meat in Canada. He also developed an export market in Europe for about thirty organic farms in Ontario. With the support of the government, he launched the first North American organic baby cereal, SUMMA, with distribution in Canada and the United States. OntarBio was later transformed into a farmers’ cooperative with over eighty members. In 1989, Schmidt helped introduce roadside grazing using 500 to 1000 sheep, for landscaping and to avoid spraying for weeds.
A COW FOR ALL SEASONS
The Schmidts’ first cows at Glencolton were black and white Holsteins, the “official” cow of Canada, the breed that produces the most milk and the highest profits in a confinement dairy system. But the Schmidts soon became interested in the Canadienne breed. Descended from the Normandie cow, the Canadienne was the first cow on the North American continent. It is a small cow that can withstand the cold Canadian winters. Her milk is very rich—high in butterfat, lactose and milk solids—making it an ideal milk for cheese.
Michael’s search for pure breeds sent him to Quebec. The Canadienne is the poor man’s cow. In the early 1900s, government policy forbade grants to farmers who had Canadiennes and no bank would give loans for any breed except Holsteins. Banks love the Holstein, explains Schmidt, because she is expensive to maintain—leading to more bank loans, more debt for the farmer, more worry and more and more emphasis on squeezing the highest level of production out of the original investment. The Canadienne, by contrast, can survive on hay. She has low production but is inexpensive to maintain. In 1987, the Schmidts purchased 12 purebred Canadiennes from a Quebec farmer. Since that time their herd has been closed. They have bred the Canadienne genetics into their original Holsteins, using several Canadienne bulls.
When Michael Schmidt talks about what’s wrong with modern milk production, he begins with a reverent description of the cow. The undomesticated cow produces 1000 to 1500 liters of milk per year. When the cow was domesticated, this amount was increased to about 4000 liters—a number that works out to about 1000 gallons per year-with good nutrition and careful handling.
The cow has four teats which tradition distributes as follows: one for the calf, one for the other animals on the farm, one for the family that lives on the farm and one for families that live in the towns or cities. The output of the cow can be increased to 6000 or even 7000 liters per year without undue stress on the cow and this is as it should be since so many people now live in cities. You can’t keep a cow in a high-rise apartment. Michael Schmidt’s cows are not pushed, however. They give about 4000 liters per year, although the amount varies according to the milker. Europeans hired milkmaids who had lovely singing voices, to coax more milk from the cows and Michael notices that the Glencolton cows give more milk when it’s Dorothea’s turn to do the milking.
But the coaxing songs of the milkmaid cannot compete with modern methods for increasing production. The modern cow, bred for volume and kept in confinement, gives anywhere from 12,000 to 24,000 liters per year. Milk production is pushed upwards with a high protein diet, a diet to which the udder responds with the production of pus. The average life span of the modern factory cow has declined to about 42 months. In fact, she is only bred once, then milked for as long as 600 days. After that, she is shipped off to the butcher. By contrast, the cows at Glencolton Farms are allowed to go dry during the winter and live in excess of 12 years.
Then there is the question of the number of cows in a herd. Currently the Schmidts keep about 30 milking cows in their barn. Confinement operations range from 1000 to as many as 10,000 cows in one location. The high density of a single species makes disease more likely and antibiotics routine. By contrast, the Glencolton cows have had no warble fly for over ten years. Schmidts vet bill for the year 2000 was $500.
Schmidt’s cows feed on lush green pasture from late May to early November. During the winter they receive hay from his own pastures and a supplement of weeds, sticks and herbs, finely ground and all from the farm. He purchases no grain, no feed at all from outside the farm. The modern confinement dairy cow gets all her food shipped in. At best her diet consists of hay and corn. At worst it contains foodstuffs totally unsuited to the cow: bakery waste, soy meal, chicken manure and citrus-peel cake loaded with organophosphate pesticides.
There are no old tires on the Schmidts’ farm because Michael does not make silage. Silage is fermented green crop or hay, usually produced in plastic-covered piles, held down by old tires. It’s a well-known fact in Germany, explains Michael, that you can’t make good hard cheese from cows that have been fed silage. In fact, in some districts, such as Emmenthal, silos are forbidden.
The Schmidts’ cows receive water twice a day, at milking time. There are no troughs in the field and none in the main barn—only in the milking parlor. By restricting water, the cow is encouraged to produce more saliva. A cow can produce 30 gallons of saliva per day, and this elixir is the magic substance that breaks down cellulose in grass, twigs and branches.
Good food, high saliva production and small herd size make for superbly healthy cows. The proof, says Michael, is in the manure, which he picks up off the barn floor and shows proudly to visitors. The manure seems to be contained in a silica coating—it is firm and sweet smelling. It also makes wonderful compost.
THE BIODYNAMIC FARM
Michael and Dorothea’s farm is a biodynamic farm. They follow the guidelines left by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner who described the farm as a living organism, its vitality created by the effective use of the enlivening forces of sunlight and the symbiosis of the organisms that populate the farm. The basis of biodynamic farming is composted manure and straw, swept out of the stalls at milking time, allowed to break down, then spread on the fields.
Michael does not plow his fields—a practice that turns the green matter under and encourages an anaerobic fermentation. Instead he uses a chisel plow that keeps the green matter on top and which encourages a top-down, aerobic fermentation. He also uses the biodynamic preps—described as homeopathic preparations for the earth—and viewed by modern agriculture as a kind of witchcraft or voodoo practiced by the superstitious. The two main preps are horn manure and horn silica, prepared by burying manure and silica in cows’ horns for the winter and retrieving them in the spring. They are mixed with water by a long process of stirring in alternate directions—much as the homeopathic physician prepares his medicines—and sprayed over the farm in a fine mist. The horn manure is applied to the earth in the early spring and the horn silica is sprayed into the air in June when the “forces of light” are at their greatest.
Silica holds a preeminent place in biodynamic agriculture as silica is said to “attract the cosmic forces,” creating a matrix for optimum vitality. That is why biodynamic farmers keep the horns on their cows. The silica in the horns is said to attract the forces of light as they graze, and that makes for milk with a much higher energy level. “One of my customers tested the energetics of my milk,” said Michael. “Commercial milk tested 12 on a scale of 100 and commercial organic milk tested 13. My milk tested 89.”
Whether or not this mysticism is true, horns on cows have practical value. Their pattern of growth shows the farmer whether or not the nutrition of the cows is good. According to Michael, when the cows are well nourished, their horns will grow upward. Cows with less than adequate nutrition will have horns that point forward or down. Long before the advent of biodynamics, the old farming books recognized that keeping the horns on was healthier. The bull that had his horns produced more sperm. The explanation was that the horns acted as a cooling apparatus.
The biodynamic preps are said to increase soil fertility by an organizing principle. But the Schmidts also recognize that the quality of the soil is dependent on the minerals that it contains and the amount of microscopic and insect life that it supports. This year they began applying paramagnetic rock to increase the fertility of their farm. Paramagnetic rock attracts other elements as a magnet does, but does not impart magnetism. Bacteria and earthworms thrive after the application of paramagnetic rock, a sign of increased soil fertility. The most noticeable effect is an increase in the yellowness of the butter. In fact, even the milk turns slightly yellow now that the soil has been enriched with paramagnetic rock.
The Schmidts cows stay inside all winter but the smell of the barn is sweet and fresh. The milking parlor is kept scrupulously clean. As a precaution, Michael sends his milk to a lab for testing every month and it always tests very low in bacteria.
Besides fresh milk, the Schmidts produce cream, sour cream, a soft cheese called quark, hard cheese, fresh cheeses and butter. Apprentices in Dorothea’s kitchen also make bread and other baked goods. From the farm come salami, liverwurst and sausages. Michael sells eggs and, in the summer months, biodynamically grown vegetables from an adjacent CSA with 80 members.
Like everything else on Glencolton Farms, the pigs are an unusual breed. Michael chose the Texas red wattle hog. They have prominent tusks and distinctive wattles under the chin. They were an original Texas breed that turned wild when farmers switched to modern, high-yield pigs. A few red wattles were recaptured in the 1980s and introduced to his farm in 1985. He lets his pigs out in the summer when their only food is pasture and whey. The people from the Guelph University agriculture department told him that they’d be riddled with worms within a year but no worms ever developed. Pigs and cows are one of the primary synergies of the farm as—unlike calves and humans—pigs can thrive on the waste products of cheese and butter making (whey and skimmed milk).
THE MILK WAR
Not long after the Schmidts bought their farm, word spread about their biodynamic products and people began to come from as far as Toronto to buy them. Many wanted farm fresh milk and they liked the idea of purchasing directly from the farm. Michael developed a cow-lease program wherein the consumers could lease a cow or portion of a cow to supply fresh milk. The program was called My Cow’s Milk. Sales increased in 1992 when he opened a store on the farm. He was told by one farmer that the people at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) Dairy Inspection Branch, were aware of his program but wouldn’t interfere unless it became widely known.
The Milk War began in 1994 after the filming of a Canadian Broadcast Company documentary on Glencolton. “It was our own fault,” says Michael. “We should never have agreed to the publicity.” CBC pre-publicity said that the documentary “would shake the entire dairy industry.”
The first battle in the Milk War came two days before the documentary was to be aired. The Owen Sound Health Unit raided the farm, seizing $800 worth of dairy products. The products were tested to prove that they were unpasteurized but no test was done to find out whether there were any harmful bacteria present. Charges were laid under the Health Protection and Promotion Act. The Owen Sound Health Unit and the Ontario Milk Marketing Board (OMMB) announced that the Schmidts dairy operation was a health threat, but none of the families drinking this risky product was warned by the Ministry of Health that they were consuming something harmful.
In April at a Toronto farmers’ market, officials of the North York Health Unit conducted a raid, supported by two police cruisers, which proceeded to block Michael Schmidt’ van and prevent his leaving. A two-hour search followed but the officials found no dairy products.
Michael’s jury trial occurred in May of 1994. The government argued that raw milk carried all sorts of hazards. Dr. Murray McQuigge claimed that 22 cases of food-borne disease related to the consumption of raw milk had occurred during the past three years. Even farmers who drank raw milk were cited as hazards because they could be carriers of bacteria. One government witness was an undercover agent who had bought butter and milk and had sent a sample to the lab. The results showed high levels of bacteria, but under cross examination it was revealed that the agent had waited six weeks to send in the sample!
The prosecution trotted out all the arguments against raw milk that had been appearing in the Toronto press. Raw milk had no health benefits, said the experts, but was a source of TB, Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Coxiella (which causes Q fever) Streptococci and Staphylococci. Although cases of contamination with VTEC (verotoxic E. coli) have never been linked to consumption of raw milk, that did not prevent health officials from engaging in guilt by association. Officials also cited death of a Peterborough infant who mysteriously died of meningitis in 1984. A panel of medical experts said that the baby caught the bacteria from another baby in the hospital nursery whose mother drank raw milk during her pregnancy!
Many witnesses for the defense presented evidence that raw milk had proven therapeutic for them. They voiced concerns about the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and bovine growth hormones which, although technically illegal in Canada, are smuggled over the border and used in some herds. A number stated that they were lactose intolerant and unable to consume pasteurized milk. Dr. Ken McAlister, a general practitioner, testified that he had never encountered any health problems among hundreds of patients who consumed raw milk. He cited a 400-bed hospital in Germany where raw milk was given as a treatment for many serious diseases. The defense noted that 17 American states and all European countries allow the sale of raw milk and raw milk cheese.
Under cross examination Dr. McQuigge, the government’s chief witness, admitted that TB and brucellosis are rare in dairy herds now and that Salmonella is more likely a cause of contamination in meat or eggs than milk. Meningitis has often been traced to contaminated water supply, as was typhoid and other bacterial diseases. Schmidt’s lawyers forced the health department to retreat to the lame argument that “flying birds over the fields might drop E. coli and contaminate the milk.”
The presiding judge said that the verdict would take four weeks but it actually took four months. During this period, the Schmidts continued to provide raw milk. But in August, 1994, the day before the verdict, Michael came out of his barn to the sight of police cruisers. At the behest of one humorless inspector, the police confiscated milk, butter and cheese. Michael convinced them to dump it rather than take it away so at least the pigs would profit.
After the verdict, in which the Schmidts raw milk was found to be a health hazard, there was a civil trial that charged the Schmidts with seven counts, ranging from mislabeling to resistance to the direction of a health officer.
During this period, other damage occurred on the farm, damage that could not be directly laid to health authorities. Milking machines were destroyed and two cows were found dead. The building that housed the cheese equipment was broken into four times. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) investigated with no results. All they could do was warn the Schmidts not to let their daughters walk to school and to “be careful.”
There was one more official raid in which the Owen Sound Health Unit attempted to remove butter from the Schmidts private cooler. A heated exchange between the authorities and Michael ensued. The authorities left without the butter but the Schmidts were punished for defending their own food against confiscation with more charges.
The most sinister skirmish in the Milk War occurred when an employee of the Schmidts, actually a cousin, surprised three men who were in the process of breaking into the cheese house. One agent was Canadian but the other two were East Germans. He recognized their accent and also remembered reading that East German intelligence agents had been hired as “private detectives” in North America. The cousin was thrown into a van and forced to tell them where Michael Schmidt was at the time. Then they drove to that house, set up infrared cameras and listening devices, and stayed for half an hour. After this, the cousin was pushed out of the van and told not to tell anyone about the incident or “he would be sorry.” The Schmidts again called the OPP for investigation but without results. Local farmers told the Schmidts that they had been asked if they would house surveillance teams. For a period of several months, vehicles were parked on the road close to the farm both day and night. Whenever farm personnel approached these cars, they took off. License plate numbers were recorded and passed on to the police who said they were unable to trace them.
The police were never able to tell Michael who was responsible for the communist-style surveillance but it is not hard to pick the most likely culprit. In Canada about 80 percent of the milk comes from confinement cows, and one or two corporations, one of which is a beer manufacturer, control at least 50 percent of these dairy operations. It is now known that certain “public relations” firms offer surveillance of rivals as a service to their clients.
The civil trial went badly. The lawyers were not very good and missed deadlines. Just before the trail began, the Schmidts farm insurance was dropped. Michael called numerous other agents, all of whom told him that he could not be insured. The lack of insurance forced him to plead guilty to the civil charges. Immediately afterwards, his insurance was reinstated.
When affairs at the farm were at their lowest ebb, Michael and Dorothea took a walk into their fields. Michael had lost his will to fight and Dorothea was discouraged. It was at that moment, when both were absorbed in thought, that he was gored by one of his bulls. The horns that he had deliberately left on his cows gave him a huge gash and caused him to spend over one week in intensive care.
Rudolf Steiner taught that the farm is a self-contained unit and that everything the farmer needs to know can be learned through patient observation of the life on the farm. The bull that gored Michael Schmidt carried the most important message of all—that his only hope was to fight back.
The Schmidts enlisted the help of several friends and launched a publicity campaign. The agricultural press had, in general, been favorable to their struggles and the many positive articles and letters it published were an embarrassment to the health authorities. In fact, Greg Sorboro, Minister of Corporate Affairs, publicly came to his defense. In a press release, Michael proposed a two-year research project on the sale of raw milk, supervised by the government. By counting the number of dairy farmers and estimating the size of their families, Michael was able to claim that about 50,000 people still drank raw milk in Ontario. One newspaper ran the following headline, “Huge Raw Milk Black Market,” and there were a number of editorials calling for the legalization of raw milk sales. In Canada, it is illegal to even give raw milk away.
Milk production in Canada is controlled by the Milk Marketing Board which was set up to stabilize milk sales and keep prices high for farmers. The Milk Marketing Board sells quotas or cow-ownership rights. If you want to milk cows, you pay $20,000 to $25,000 per head of cow. (The fee is actually for one kilogram of butterfat per day.) The quota system was a temporary boon to dairy farmers but now that the industry has become so consolidated and the costs of confinement dairying so high, dairy farm income is declining. Worse, the quota system has become a way of keeping “difficult” farmers in line. Should a farmer want to increase his profit by selling raw milk, the Milk Marketing Board has the power to take away the farmer’s quotas, effectively putting him out of business.
Fortunately, the Milk Marketing Board had no hold on the Schmidts because they sold their quotas in 1992-1993 and used the money to build the cheesehouse and the barn.
But it was the Milk Marketing Board that would decide on Michael’s proposal for a research project. Michael and Dorothea and two supporters faced about a dozen members, only one of whom, a man named John Core, did all the talking. “It was like a Russian court,” says Michael. “John Core did all the talking and the rest had their heads down.” Core spoke a long time in bureaucratese, but the answer was no. Schmidt then asked the others whether they were all farmers. They nodded. “Then I am totally ashamed,” he said, “but we never stopped giving milk to the people and we will continue.”
The Schmidts and their followers then ran to the press conference they had organized. They announced that they had been “thrown out” of the meeting. Michael then officially and publicly stated that if the police came back on his farm once more, he would go on a hunger strike. “The government then had only two choices,” said Michael, “either ignore me (and admit that we were right) or press forward with a full attack, one that would backfire and make matters worse for the government.”
Later at an official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a new store in the district, Michael wrote on the ribbon “For a better communication between the government and Glencolton Farms.” All signed it, including the Minister of Agriculture and Food. There were 80 people watching so he could not refuse. The ribbon was cut and Michael kept it. Later he learned that the piece of ribbon signed by himself and the Minister is a binding contract.
As a result of the trials, the farm store was closed and the six local employees were laid off. Donations from individuals in Canada and the US totaled $20,000 but financial pressures forced the Schmidts to sell 500 acres of their 600-acre farm and even sell off some of the cows. At their lowest ebb, the Schmidts were down to just four cows.
In the summer of 1997, the Schmidts held a fund-raiser on their farm, one that allowed Michael to display his talents as a musician. In the early 1970s Schmidt founded and conducted the Chamber Youth orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany. In Canada he founded, directed and conducted the Saugeen Bach choir of 75 voices. The choir went on a highly successful tour in Germany and Austria. The 1997 music festival featured a performance of Carmina Burana, the Beethoven piano concertos and an opera by Mozart. Glencolton Farms has since been the venue for a series of house concerts featuring classical music. The biodynamic farm, according to Steiner, will be the basis of true culture and the Milk War allowed the Schmid’s to set the example for farms of the future.
BACK TO NORMAL
The Schmidts are now back up to 25 cows with a goal of 36. In spite of his troubles, Michael is the only dairy farmer in the district who has not gone out of business.
While the government has remained quiescent, Michael and Dorothea have set up a new system for getting raw milk to the many Canadians who want it- not a lease system that he used before but one that involves the actual sale of the cow. One share is worth one-fourth of a cow and costs $250. Share owners also pay a fee of $2 per liter to cover the cost of the milkers’ time and the expenses of the farm, including the cheese operation that must conform to Canadian health regulations. In Canada, organic milk sells for $2.49 per liter and conventional milk sells for $1.87 per liter. If the cow dies they replace it and shares in calves are sold to more customers. Shareholders sign a formal contract and receive a card that allows them to obtain their own milk.
Once a week, Michael begins his day before dawn to make the three-hour drive into town. In Toronto, share owners line up to pick up their milk from his old school bus, now painted blue and converted into a store. He also provides other products of the farm: bread, sausage, salami, bacon, cheese, cream, and beautiful yellow butter.
From 1983 to the present, and all throughout the Milk War, Schmidt continued to give lectures to students of Guelph University, McGill University and Sir Sanford Fleming College. He learned that there was a big file on him in Guelph but the Milk War has made him a folk hero. “People are waking up to the fact,” says Michael, “that the issue of raw milk has nothing to do with protecting the public and everything to do with protecting those who control the food supply.”
The big excitement was the realization of how many people depended on his milk. “It was a revolting thought,” he says, “that people could not get healthy milk.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2001 edition of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.