The Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) has reached a settlement with Richard Hebron of Family Farms’ Cooperative after their cops-and-robbers showdown and confiscation of his property last year.
The good news is that the settlement continues to recognize the fact that cow and herdshare lease contracts are not prohibited by law and that Richard Hebron may continue to distribute raw milk to members of Family Farm’s Cooperative pursuant to their cow and herdshare lease agreement.
As for other raw milk products, Hebron and the MDA have agreed to request an opinion from the Michigan Attorney General regarding whether Mr. Hebron can legally produce and/or distribute raw dairy products other than milk to the members of Family Farms’ Cooperative. Additional questions related to cow and herdshare lease agreements may also be posed.
Hebron has agreed to cease the processing, packaging and repackaging of poultry and other food products until his facilities are in compliance with applicable laws. MDA will conduct periodic compliance audits of this agreement in addition to any routinely scheduled inspections, sampling, licensing requests, or complaint investigations. The farm will now use a small new USDA processor for his chickens and will either limit his eggs to his own production or invest in a washer-grader so he can continue providing the eggs of other farmers.
Mr. Hebron has agreed not to use the premises of any licensed retail food establishment as a distribution point.
MDA has agreed to return the balance of Mr. Hebron’s property seized pursuant to a warrant issued in October 2006, with exception of Co-op foods, which have spoiled over time or which are to be destroyed pursuant to the Settlement. Mr. Hebron was not been charged with any crimes nor has he been assessed any criminal penalties; he has agreed to pay to MDA an administrative fine of $1,000. The state will not compensate Hebron for the value of the products they seized.
Overall, the settlement is a victory for raw milk, but the attitude of the MDA remains condescending and hostile to small farms. Officials treated Hebron rudely and abruptly at the settlement meetings. MDA is also hinting at including mention of cow and herdshare agreements in the dairy regulations. . . a move which would give them the regulatory authority they now lack over these contracts. Local chapter leaders and members remain vigilant and are pursuing meetings with officials in the governor’s office to state the case for raw milk and family farms.
Richard Hebron and the other members of Family Farms Cooperative (FFC) have a lease agreement with David Hochstetler, the owner of Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Indiana, pursuant to which they obtain raw milk and raw milk products. When Michigan Department of Agriculture executed the search warrant on the Hebron’s farm, they found copies of the lease contract about which they alerted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Shortly afterwards, FDA sent an inspector to the Forest Grove Dairy, and several months later (February 8, 2007) issued a warning letter to Hochstetler. The letter alleged that Hochstetler had violated the federal regulation (21 CFR 1240.61) prohibiting the delivery into interstate commerce of raw milk and raw milk products in final package form for human consumption. After meeting with FDA officials March 6, Hochstetler sent a written response to the agency on March 20 denying he had violated the federal regulation. Hochstetler claimed that the regulation only prohibited the sale of raw milk in interstate commerce and that his lease contract with FFC did not constitute a sale. He also stated that enforcing the regulation against him would be discriminatory since the raw milk produced at his farm consistently tested well below the bacteriological standards required by the federal government for pasteurized milk to be shipped in interstate commerce. At this time, FDA has yet to respond to Hochstetler’s letter. If FDA does take enforcement action against Hochstetler, they will stop the distribution of raw milk products across state lines to members of FFC. While MDA has acknowledged that herd lease agreements are not against the law in Michigan, it has indicated that if requested by FDA it will assist in stopping the distribution of raw dairy to FFC due to a cooperative agreement it has with the federal government.