The War on Milk

The War on Milk


By Emily Sohn, Pho­tographs by Louisa Podlich

In Min­nesota, pub­lic health offi­cials and food free­dom fight­ers are squared off in a bat­tle that nei­ther side is likely to win. Div­ing into the raw milk under­ground, Emily Sohn dis­cov­ers an unlikely alliance of sub­ur­ban par­ents, health-conscious food­ies and farm­ers who believe milk is best when served directly from teat to table.

Around nine o’clock on a cold Wednes­day morn­ing in early March 2011, Alvin Schlangen pulled his white deliv­ery van into a park­ing lot between a snow-covered ath­letic field and a veg­e­tar­ian hous­ing co-op near Macalester Col­lege in St. Paul. As soon as he parked, two police cars and a third unmarked car drove in, trap­ping him there. Schlangen was not expect­ing this, at least not today. Nonethe­less, he was pre­pared. On the slid­ing door of the van’s pas­sen­ger side, he had attached a no-trespassing sign, which read: PRIVATE – Not a Pub­lic Area! Warn­ing to ALL State and Fed­eral Offi­cials and Infor­mants: You must have an appoint­ment and per­mis­sion from the owner to enter.” Four cops and two Min­nesota Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (MDA) offi­cials stepped out of the cars to con­front Schlangen, who was sit­ting behind the steer­ing wheel, call­ing his point-person to announce his arrival at the site. When he emerged, he says, the offi­cers tried to con­vince him to let them into the vehi­cle, sug­gest­ing that there would be legal con­se­quences if he didn’t. “I don’t think so,” he told them, his square jaw and blue eyes steady with trust in his rights under the law. “You’re not going to enter the vehi­cle with­out my per­mis­sion.” The stand­off con­tin­ued for ten min­utes, as Schlangen remem­bers it. Despite his refusal to budge, the search team opened the back door, where they saw a bag of oranges and a bag of grape­fruit sit­ting in front of a large white struc­ture that blocked their view into the inte­rior. Cit­rus wasn’t exactly what they were look­ing for. But the fruits were clearly not Min­nesota crops, Schlangen says, and that was evi­dence enough to get them a search war­rant. The St. Paul police didn’t file a report that day and the MDA refused to answer ques­tions about the case. But the search war­rant details a year­long his­tory of con­flict between Schlangen and the MDA, giv­ing the depart­ment rea­son­able cause to sus­pect he was con­duct­ing ille­gal activ­ity out of the van. Once inside the vehi­cle, it didn’t take them long to find refrig­er­a­tors filled with cold, raw milk along­side raw but­ter, cream and kefir, as well as eggs and other foods ordered by mem­bers of Schlangen’s buy­ing club, Free­dom Farms Coop. The raw dairy is what ini­tially put the agri­cul­ture depart­ment on Schlangen’s trail that morn­ing. In Min­nesota, after all, milk straight from the cow is allowed to change hands only on the farms it comes from—a law meant to pro­tect peo­ple from deadly bac­te­ria that can grow in the unheated liq­uid. Yet, week after week, Schlangen had been wak­ing up early to pick up loads of unpas­teur­ized con­tra­band from a neighbor’s farm, dri­ving nearly two hours to the Twin Cities and unload­ing the goods into garages around the metro area so that mem­bers of his club could pick up their weekly sup­plies. Schlangen’s milk-drinking net­work has its own inter­pre­ta­tion of the law and an orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that they believe makes what they’re doing legal. But a recent high-profile out­break of E. coli had prompted a series of crack­downs on under­ground raw-milk deliv­ery net­works around the state. Now, it was Schlangen’s turn to face the music. After a tow-truck hauled his van off to the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Schlangen climbed into one of the police cars to fol­low behind. While he waited, the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture raided an indus­trial ware­house space in Min­neapo­lis that Schlangen’s group leased, where they seized five thou­sand dol­lars worth of food. That bust led to a jury trial in Hen­nepin County court this fall. Pre­ceded by months of ral­lies, demon­stra­tions and awareness-raising potlucks, the trial would draw the atten­tion of thou­sands of raw-milk con­sumers around the coun­try who remain locked in fer­vent bat­tles for what they believe are their basic “food rights.” Later that after­noon, when Schlangen got his van back, all that was left inside were the bags of fruit. In his eyes and those of his sup­port­ers, it wasn’t just the food that was gone. He had also been robbed of his free­dom. It has been a tough cou­ple of years for raw-milk drinkers in Min­nesota. First came the case of the Hart­mann Dairy Farm in Gib­bon, where, in the spring of 2010, the state linked eight cases of a rare strain of E. coli to raw milk. Over the next few months, a series of crack­downs ensued, begin­ning with the Hart­mann dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work and spread­ing to Schlangen’s—both highly orga­nized sys­tems that, for years, have deliv­ered unpas­teur­ized dairy prod­ucts and other foods to drop-sites around Min­neapo­lis and St. Paul. Since then, offi­cials have seized food from deliv­ery routes, vis­ited drop-site coor­di­na­tors and called at least one restau­rant owner who men­tioned a raw-milk event on her busi­ness’ Face­book page. Exact num­bers of peo­ple who pre­fer unpas­teur­ized milk, and who often refer to it as “real milk” rather than raw, are not rou­tinely counted, but experts esti­mate that as many as one to three per­cent of Amer­i­cans drink raw milk or eat foods made from it either reg­u­larly or occa­sion­ally. Those num­bers, based in part on results of a 2007 sur­vey by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) that asked peo­ple whether they’d eaten cer­tain foods in the pre­vi­ous week, amounts to as many as 160,000 Min­nesotans and nine mil­lion Amer­i­cans who are affected by raw milk laws. And demand for both the milk and eas­ier access to it seems to be grow­ing, accord­ing to farm­ers, drop-site coor­di­na­tors, man­agers of e-mail lists and Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture offi­cials. For now, only twelve states allow the sale of raw milk on store shelves. Twenty states ban it out­right. The rest, like Min­nesota, restrict the liquid’s trade in var­i­ous ways. But in the last two years, more than a dozen state leg­is­la­tures have con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion that would make raw milk eas­ier to acquire. So has the fed­eral gov­ern­ment: since May 2011, the U.S. House Energy & Com­merce Committee’s Sub­com­mit­tee on Health has had on its plate a pro­posal to legal­ize the traf­fic of raw milk across state lines.

It wasn’t just the food that was gone. He had also been robbed of his freedom.”

Minnesota’s pro­pos­als to legal­ize dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems such as Schlangen’s fiz­zled last spring, but momen­tum will likely build again as State Sen­a­tor Sean Nienow plans to intro­duce new leg­is­la­tion in Jan­u­ary. “Almost every­one knows some­one who drinks raw milk,” says Nienow, a Repub­li­can in Dis­trict 17, about sixty miles north of St. Paul. “Pro­po­nents came to me and said, ‘We’ve got this law we want to change.’ It makes sense to me. It’s about per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity. Who’s the gov­ern­ment to say, ‘Hi, I’m here to pro­tect you from your­self?’” Mem­bers of the “milk under­ground” make pas­sion­ate argu­ments that extol the health ben­e­fits of their dairy of choice. But what gets many sup­port­ers really riled up is the ques­tion of food rights. Move­ments for philoso­phies like Slow Food, Real Food and Farm-to-Table Food seem like quaint and pas­sive pas­times next to the polit­i­cally com­bat­ive and bor­der­line mil­i­tant aura of the Food Free­dom move­ment. On the front lines, these fight­ers often deploy anti-government rhetoric, refer­ring to esca­lat­ing crack­downs as evi­dence of an over­bear­ing nanny state and cit­ing inci­dents like one in Bloom­ing­ton, Minn., where inspec­tors arrived at a sub­ur­ban home early one morn­ing, star­tling a mom after she climbed out of the shower and drag­ging her teenage sons out of bed before search­ing the family’s refrig­er­a­tors. “The reg­u­la­tors in Min­nesota have gone after this almost with joy or glee, and they have kind of wel­comed the fight,” says David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Rev­o­lu­tion: Behind America’s Emerg­ing Bat­tle Over Food Rights. “They seem to be really enjoy­ing them­selves in try­ing to stamp these raw milk drinkers out.” Rather than beat­ing Minnesota’s raw-milk drinkers into pas­teur­ized sub­mis­sion, the “ram­page” has sim­ply dri­ven them deeper under­ground, brought them closer together and made them more deter­mined than ever to con­tinue doing what they’re doing. As it grows and unites dis­parate groups of peo­ple on both polit­i­cal extremes in the Mid­west and beyond, the fight for food rights is gain­ing steam from roots in a deep mis­trust of big gov­ern­ment, big money, and big sci­ence. It seems fit­ting some­how that the bat­tle is bub­bling up over some­thing as mun­dane and ubiq­ui­tous as the stuff we pour into our bowls of break­fast cereal.

The fight for food rights is gain­ing steam from roots in a deep mis­trust of big gov­ern­ment, big money, and big science.”

It’s quar­ter past five on a Thurs­day morn­ing in Sep­tem­ber when I drive along a dirt road through com­plete dark­ness to a red dairy barn in Todd County, Minn., 125 miles north­west of my Min­neapo­lis home. In the bright beams of my car’s head­lights, I watch a cow saunter by before I cut the engine, step out into the pre-dawn chill and stum­ble towards a loud, rhyth­mic noise waft­ing out of a cor­ner of the barn. It’s so dark out­side that I have to use the light of my iPhone to get to the door of a small room, where I find a bearded young farmer hand-pumping a machine that sep­a­rates raw cream intended for human con­sump­tion from skim milk, which he’ll feed to his pigs and chick­ens. Samuel—whose name I’ve changed to pro­tect him against the ris­ing tide of raw-milk persecution—rose as usual at 4:30 a.m. to milk his farm’s ten cows to the light of the head­lamp strapped around his straw hat. Since he’s Amish, his 120 acres oper­ate off the elec­tri­cal grid. When he’s done with this batch of sep­a­rat­ing, Samuel walks to the other side of the barn, where he sits on an upturned plas­tic bucket beneath the udders of a black-and-white Hol­stein named Daisy. To the cho­rus of cack­ling roost­ers, flap­ping chicken wings and an occa­sional sleepy “Moo,” he hand-squeezes the last milk of the morn­ing into a metal bucket that rings as each swish of milk lands inside. With a sliver of pink just begin­ning to lighten the sky, he returns to the small pro­cess­ing room, where he pours the fresh milk into a ten-gallon metal tank equipped with an appa­ra­tus of tubes that imme­di­ately cool the liq­uid using water from an attached gar­den house. The roads nearby soon get busy with horse-drawn car­riages deliv­er­ing chil­dren to school. As much as I want to love this idyl­lic scene, I won­der about the ele­phant on the farm: The throngs of bac­te­ria that lurk everywhere—not just in pas­toral barns like this one but on every sur­face of every­thing we touch, includ­ing our own skin. Invis­i­ble to the naked eye, these microbes form the crux of the raw-milk wars. Some are harm­less, but oth­ers have the abil­ity to wreak havoc on our guts, our immune sys­tems and our lives. In the 1920s, when rou­tine pas­teur­iza­tion of milk began in the U.S., rates of tuber­cu­lo­sis, scar­let fever, typhoid fever, and other infec­tions trans­mit­ted through milk dropped dra­mat­i­cally. Milk went from being the country’s num­ber one food-safety prob­lem to being a safe food, says Bar­bara Mahon, a med­ical epi­demi­ol­o­gist at the CDC in Atlanta. Raw-milk advo­cates say that his­tory is irrel­e­vant today because cows are kept in much cleaner envi­ron­ments now than they were in the 1920s, when rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion made con­di­tions espe­cially unsan­i­tary. “Pas­teur­ized milk is one of the great­est pub­lic health dis­as­ters in his­tory,” says Sally Fal­lon Morell, found­ing pres­i­dent of the Weston A. Price Foundation—an activist orga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports raw milk as well as other “nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble acti­va­tors found exclu­sively in ani­mal fats.” She was speak­ing to a packed con­fer­ence room at the third annual Inter­na­tional Raw Milk Sym­po­sium in Bloom­ing­ton in May of 2011. “It has destroyed the most nutri­ent dense and impor­tant food we have for grow­ing chil­dren. Get­ting raw milk dur­ing that period of growth can make the dif­fer­ence between a healthy pro­duc­tive life and a mis­er­able life.” Cer­tainly, the bac­te­ria issue is com­plex. In a slew of recent papers in high-profile sci­ence jour­nals, researchers asso­ci­ated with the Human Micro­biome Project have begun to reveal how the ecosys­tems in our diges­tive sys­tems, on our skin and through­out our bod­ies can influ­ence our health in a sur­pris­ing num­ber of ways, from our risks of obe­sity to our chances of devel­op­ing rheuma­toid arthri­tis. The bac­te­ria that inhabit us out­num­ber our own cells ten to one, and advo­cates of raw milk often bring up the micro­biome to explain why pas­teur­iza­tion is a bad idea. While the heat­ing process may kill harm­ful bac­te­ria that can cause com­pli­ca­tions rang­ing from diar­rhea to death, they argue that pas­teur­iza­tion also destroys poten­tially help­ful pro­bi­otic bac­te­ria as well as impor­tant enzymes and vit­a­mins that help our bod­ies fight off path­o­genic bac­te­ria and digest fats and cal­cium, among other nutri­ents. Even as the bat­tle between good and evil bac­te­ria remains con­tentious in milk, fall­out from the bad guys is all too easy to quan­tify: From 1987 to Sep­tem­ber 2010, accord­ing to data com­piled by the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion, raw milk caused at least 133 out­breaks of food­borne dis­ease in the U.S., lead­ing to 2,659 ill­nesses, 269 hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, three deaths, six still­births and two mis­car­riages. Sip per sip, unpas­teur­ized prod­ucts cause about 150 times more ill­nesses and out­breaks com­pared to cases of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion that hap­pen after pas­teur­iza­tion, found a study pub­lished last Feb­ru­ary in the jour­nal Emerg­ing Infec­tious Dis­eases. And after ana­lyz­ing all dairy-related out­breaks reported in the U.S. between 1993 and 2006, the CDC sci­en­tists who con­ducted the study found that sixty per­cent of dairy-related out­breaks came from con­sump­tion of raw prod­ucts even though just a tiny frac­tion of the country’s dairy sup­ply is unpas­teur­ized. Out­breaks caused by raw milk also dis­pro­por­tion­ately affect chil­dren, Mahon says, and they tend to cause more severe ill­nesses. “When I look at reports of what is in raw milk in terms of bac­te­r­ial con­tent, I see a lot of shit bac­te­ria, includ­ing ones that can kill peo­ple,” says Lance Price, a pub­lic health micro­bi­ol­o­gist at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “When you look at the fecal bac­te­ria in the milk and then you see things like lac­to­bacil­lus, which peo­ple call the good bac­te­ria, I have to say, ‘Is drink­ing the shit bac­te­ria worth it to get these lac­to­bacil­lus when I could get lac­to­bacil­lus from eat­ing pas­teur­ized yogurt cul­ti­vated with lac­to­bacil­lus?’” Even when a cow doesn’t appear to be sick, her skin crawls with bac­te­ria that can include dan­ger­ous ones. Some­times, milk emerges from the udder already con­t­a­m­i­nated. In one case in Mass­a­chu­setts, a group of researchers from mul­ti­ple insti­tu­tions con­ducted a lengthy inves­ti­ga­tion into a 1998 Sal­mo­nella out­break in chil­dren who had sam­pled raw milk on a farm tour. The team finally traced the out­break to a sin­gle cow that had a Sal­mo­nella–infected abscess inside one of her four teats. “Although the stan­dards of hygiene have improved,” Mahon says, “noth­ing can be done, short of pas­teur­iza­tion, to make sure milk is safe.” Ques­tions about whether raw milk is harm­ful or health­ful infu­ri­ate Michael Oster­holm, direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Infec­tious Dis­ease Research and Pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, Twin Cities, who sees the debate as part of a rise in anti-science sen­ti­ments rum­bling through­out soci­ety. “This is really a throw­back to the fact that sci­ence is no longer a lead­ing fac­tor in mak­ing pub­lic pol­icy,” he says. “There are peo­ple who deny that the Earth is round, but think of how fool­ish you would feel if you asked me: Is this Earth round? Study this in more detail. It’s not even a debate. It’s not even some­thing close to a debate. The data are over­whelm­ing on the safety of pas­teur­ized milk and the lack of safety of unpas­teur­ized milk.” Devo­tees remain unde­terred. They point out that eggs, under­cooked meats, fruits and even peanut but­ter cause more prob­lems than raw milk does with­out incit­ing the same kind of harass­ment that raw milk gets. The 2,659 ill­nesses attrib­uted to raw milk over a period of 23 years breaks down to about 115 peo­ple sick­ened each year. But each year, one in six Amer­i­cans, or 48 mil­lion peo­ple, fall ill and 3,000 die from food­borne dis­eases, accord­ing to the CDC, which does not cal­cu­late num­bers of peo­ple sick­ened by any given food in an illness-per-serving kind of way, mak­ing it vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to com­pare the risks of one prod­uct to another. Given the uncer­tainty, advo­cates focus on absolute num­bers instead of the frac­tion of peo­ple who eat a food who are sick­ened by it. What they ignore, crit­ics say, is that there are also far more peo­ple who con­sume those foods than there are raw-milk drinkers. If raw milk were to become read­ily avail­able on store shelves around the coun­try, they worry, total num­bers of ill­nesses could sky­rocket among peo­ple who might not even real­ize they were tak­ing risks by drink­ing it. Even though they often acknowl­edge a rise in poten­tial health con­cerns from raw milk, most peo­ple who drink it have never become ill, and the vast major­ity never will. Many even claim to feel bet­ter than ever, espe­cially if they adopt other ben­e­fi­cial health habits as part of their switch to raw milk. Those anec­dotes become pow­er­ful as they rever­ber­ate through a com­mu­nity. In often-told sto­ries of raw milk’s cura­tive pow­ers, it is said to cir­cum­vent lac­tose intol­er­ance, reduce rates of asthma, aller­gies and Crohn’s dis­ease, and to have the poten­tial to treat every­thing from can­cer to infer­til­ity to autism to the flu. (To sup­port these claims, advo­cates refer to plenty of stud­ies, which in an end­less game of cita­tional ping-pong, sci­en­tists crit­i­cize and refute with other stud­ies that they say are more thor­oughly done and care­fully con­trolled.) Raw-milk drinkers also point to the processed nature of con­ven­tional milk, espe­cially the kind that’s pro­duced on indus­trial farms, which use hor­mones, robotic equip­ment and tech­niques like homog­e­niza­tion that alter the struc­ture of fat in milk. And they fre­quently express dis­trust of the CDC, the FDA and other gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions that, they say, have failed the Amer­i­can pub­lic before. “When the FDA says some­thing is safe, it often turns out to be some­thing that’s unsafe,” Gumpert says. “So when they say some­thing is unsafe, it could very well be safe.” It is with shit bac­te­ria on my mind that I watch Samuel lift a fun­nel off the same ground he trudged over in his muddy work boots. And even though he has sprayed every­thing down with a hose, I remem­ber with sud­den alarm that I shook his hand before he milked Daisy that morn­ing. In the delir­ium of an unusu­ally early wake-up call on not enough sleep, how well had I washed my hands after using the bath­room? Later, when Samuel and his wife work quickly to fill the milk jugs, I notice her quickly pop an air bub­ble with her fin­ger before screw­ing on a blue plas­tic cap. With five young chil­dren in the house, I won­der, had she recently changed a dia­per? Am I being too para­noid, or not para­noid enough? After he’s done with the milk­ing, Samuel car­ries on with other farm chores before head­ing off for a day of work at a nearby steel mill. Just after 8 a.m., with Samuel long gone, Schlangen shows up at the farm in his van and parks along­side the ice house—an insu­lated struc­ture filled with mas­sive blocks of ice that cool the space to thirty-four degrees Fahren­heit all sum­mer long. He lets him­self in and loads crate after crate of milk, cream, but­ter, kefir and other foods into the vehicle.

This is really a throw­back to the fact that sci­ence is no longer a lead­ing fac­tor in mak­ing pub­lic policy.”

Between grunts, he explains why he con­tin­ues to deliver a full load of raw dairy to the Twin Cities twice a week, even though his trial—and the threat of jail time and thou­sands of dol­lars in fines—are just ten days away. Our nation’s food sys­tem depends on get­ting peo­ple into stores to buy milk and other goods, his sup­port­ers believe, and net­works like his both sub­vert that frag­ile econ­omy and threaten an already strug­gling milk indus­try by divert­ing people’s dol­lars away from main­stream dairy. “The gov­ern­ment would have us believe that we have to ask some­body if we can eat well, from our own cows, if we can eat this kind of qual­ity. We under­stand that the con­sti­tu­tion pro­vides for all this free­dom but we have to demand that,” Schlangen says. “Appar­ently it’s not obvi­ous enough to our so-called lead­ers. Peo­ple aren’t sup­posed to be healthy. It’s not good for busi­ness.” With that, he gets in his van and speeds down the dusty road, on a mis­sion to bring raw milk to the masses.

Rae Lynn Sand­vig and her hus­band Greg sat in a quiet room with plush beige car­pet­ing in the back cor­ner of their two-story, sub­ur­ban home in a gated neigh­bor­hood in Bloom­ing­ton, Minn. It was quar­ter past seven on a warm June morn­ing in 2010, not long after the Hart­mann bust that had started a recent wave of crack­downs. The cou­ple had just spo­ken on the phone with their old­est son about some job-decisions he was try­ing to make in Chicago. When they fin­ished pray­ing about his con­cerns, Rae Lynn went upstairs to get ready for the day. She was still in the shower when Greg looked from the sit­ting room through the office win­dow and saw an unfa­mil­iar car drive by on their quiet street. Their three other sons were still asleep. It was a Thurs­day, the day that Rae Lynn had long hosted a weekly drop-site for raw milk and other foods from the Hart­mann Dairy Farm, though she wasn’t expect­ing a ship­ment this week because the E. coli inves­ti­ga­tion had shut down Hartmann’s dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem two weeks ear­lier. In the inter­ven­ing days, Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture offi­cials vis­ited and col­lected sam­ples of food from some of the neigh­bors who had been pick­ing up sup­plies at her site for as many as seven years. Three neigh­bors signed a form reveal­ing Rae Lynn as their source and, she says, one woman was freaked out enough to phone her. “She called and said, ‘Rae Lynn, I’m afraid for you,’” she tells me more than two years later, her voice ris­ing with anger that still lingers over what hap­pened next. “That’s all she said. I under­stood there were calls being made to cus­tomers. When they raided my farmer’s house, they got the cus­tomer list. I never got a call.” Greg walked out­side as seven peo­ple approached his front door. Two were from the Min­nesota Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, they would learn later. Two were from the Bloom­ing­ton Envi­ron­men­tal Health Divi­sion. And three were under­cover Bloom­ing­ton police offi­cers dressed in dirty jeans, T-shirts and base­ball caps. The police­men shoved a search war­rant in Greg’s face, Rae Lynn says, but he wasn’t wear­ing his glasses. He had never seen a search war­rant before. He became instinc­tively pro­tec­tive of his home and fam­ily. “You are not com­ing in our house,” he told them. “I don’t even know who you are.” As Greg remem­bers it, one of the men held up a badge on a lan­yard. When Greg lifted a fin­ger to point at it in an attempt to see it bet­ter, the policeman-in-disguise pushed his hand out of the way. “Lis­ten, we can do it one of two ways,” he told Greg, and ges­tured to a car across the street. “Either you let us do what we need to do peace­fully. Or we can cuff you and put you in that car.” They stepped around him, passed the Amer­i­can flag hang­ing by the front door, and entered the grey-and-white Colo­nial. Inside, they fanned out to look around. Behind them, Greg yelled, “My wife is in the shower. Don’t you dare go upstairs!” Roused by the com­mo­tion, Rae Lynn’s youngest son went to tell her there were peo­ple out­side the house. Now in her bed­room, she had just enough time to throw on a shirt and pair of shorts before the door opened to reveal her hus­band and two cops stand­ing behind him. The third offi­cer went into the bed­rooms of her other two sons, woke them up and told one to put on shorts over his box­ers. All three young men, then ages four­teen, sev­en­teen and nine­teen, along with their par­ents, were cor­ralled into the kitchen, where, Rae Lynn says, they were held for two hours, though Bloom­ing­ton Envi­ron­men­tal Health pro­gram coor­di­na­tor Shan­non Rohr, who was one of the seven offi­cials who vis­ited the house that day, didn’t remem­ber it last­ing that long. Look­ing through an entire house and clear­ing peo­ple out of rooms is stan­dard pro­ce­dure with a search war­rant, Rohr says, a pre­cau­tion nec­es­sary to pre­vent unwanted sur­prises. Nei­ther the Bloom­ing­ton Police Depart­ment nor the Envi­ron­men­tal Health Divi­sion filed a report that day. And the MDA, whose offi­cials weren’t let into the home until after the search was over, didn’t record their time of arrival. But Rae Lynn wrote every­thing down after it hap­pened. Dur­ing their time in the kitchen, she says, the offi­cers looked in the refrig­er­a­tor, where they found one glass bot­tle labeled “Real Milk.” The week­end before, with Hartmann’s net­work dis­abled, Rae Lynn had dri­ven nearly two hours to retrieve her weekly dairy sup­plies from the farm. The offi­cials offered her money for the milk. MDA spokesman Michael Schom­mer says the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment wanted to test the milk for bac­te­ria and that their offer of pay­ment was stan­dard pro­ce­dure to com­pen­sate the fam­ily for what they’d be tak­ing. But Rae Lynn felt like it was a trap. She says they told her they would pay what­ever she wanted. “Are you kid­ding me?” she answered, her round brown eyes shin­ing with the threat of tears at the mem­ory. “I don’t sell. This is mine.” As the ordeal dragged on, she stood in the kitchen, drift­ing from anger to fear to dis­be­lief. She cried. She fumed. She tried to edu­cate the offi­cers about her food choices and her desire to avoid milk that is full of “dead cells.” After look­ing through the refrig­er­a­tor and freezer in the Sand­vigs’ garage, which the fam­ily uses to store the extra food they buy in bulk for a fam­ily full of teenage boys, the offi­cials finally left with half a gal­lon of milk and a pound of ham­burger. Since the raid, Rae Lynn says, she has felt numb. Life is dif­fer­ent. The Sand­vigs now have blinds on their win­dows. They keep the door locked. Her adren­a­line surges every time she sees a Bloom­ing­ton city police car. “How could my gov­ern­ment do this to me?” she asks. “I’ve done noth­ing wrong.” Con­trary to the image that a stereo­typ­i­cal raw-milk devo­tee might evoke, there is not a whiff of patchouli at the Sand­vig house. Rae Lynn and Greg are not hip­pies, anar­chists, or even democ­rats. She describes her­self as polit­i­cally “very con­ser­v­a­tive.” Before the recent elec­tion, her lawn sported a sign sup­port­ing an amend­ment to define mar­riage as between one man and one woman. Her spot­less sit­ting room is full of religious-themed books. The Sandvigs’s raw-milk jour­ney began about twelve years ago, when Rae Lynn saw unmarked jars at a farmer’s stand, asked around and even­tu­ally stepped up to host a drop-site as demand grew among her neigh­bors. Raw milk has trans­formed her husband’s diges­tive sys­tem, she says. All of her boys are strong, ath­letic and thin. None have bro­ken any bones. They don’t get sick. Each Thurs­day before the raid, Hartmann’s truck would drive into the Sand­vigs’ garage and stay there for about two hours until all 35 or so fam­i­lies that used the node had come to pick up their orders of raw milk and other farm foods. Rae Lynn usu­ally stayed out there the entire time, sweat­ing on hot sum­mer days and hud­dling on frigid win­ter morn­ings. Some­times she made pan­cakes for every­one. She and the neigh­bors who relied on her site cel­e­brated birth­days together. They knew their farmer and where their food was com­ing from. They were a community—a com­mu­nity that, she says, has been destroyed. Fed up with the government’s inter­fer­ence, Rae Lynn says she and her allies sim­ply “want to be able to eat what we want to eat. We, as peo­ple, can make our own deci­sions. We are capa­ble of doing research.” Per­haps more than any other issue, the Food Free­dom move­ment and its cor­re­spond­ing push for access to raw milk, cross polit­i­cal bound­aries and tie peo­ple together who couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Along­side con­ser­v­a­tive moms like Sand­vig, sup­port­ers include lib­eral left­ies inter­ested in sup­port­ing local farm­ers, eat­ing whole foods and pur­su­ing holis­tic med­i­cine. Food has a way of bring­ing peo­ple together. “This cuts across all demo­graph­ics and all polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies,” says Min­nesota State Sen­a­tor Sean Nienow. At LGBT day at the state Capi­tol two years ago, Nienow talked with one of his con­stituents who told him that she went to Canada to marry her female part­ner in defi­ance of his sup­port of the amend­ment that would define mar­riage as between one man and one woman. “As she was leav­ing, she said, ‘But thanks for the raw milk bill!’ Every­one from Chris­t­ian con­ser­v­a­tive evan­gel­i­cals to tree-huggers to the woman who went to Canada to get mar­ried all stand together for raw milk.”

When Schlangen’s trial finally begins in mid-September of 2012, dozens of sup­port­ers fill the court­room on the six­teenth floor of the Hen­nepin County Gov­ern­ment Cen­ter in down­town Min­neapo­lis. Among the four charges against him, Schlangen is accused of sell­ing unla­beled food and sell­ing unpas­teur­ized milk off the farm where it was pro­duced. The crowd includes farm­ers, their cus­tomers and other raw-milk drinkers who have trav­eled from as far away as New Hamp­shire to see what is going to hap­pen to Schlangen and to spec­u­late on how the trial might affect their own access to raw dairy. Amish Samuel makes an appear­ance. So does Ver­non Her­sh­berger, an Amish raw-milk farmer in Wis­con­sin who will face his own jury trial in Jan­u­ary for a June 2010 raid by the Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. For three days in a row, moth­ers come to the cour­t­house bear­ing Amer­i­can flags and small chil­dren. The kids sit on the floor play­ing with iPhones, munch­ing on apple slices and snooz­ing in laps while their moms lis­ten to hours of tes­ti­mony about Schlangen’s dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem, includ­ing more than 140 pic­tures of the van, food and the receipt book Schlangen uses for record-keeping. On the morn­ing of day two, Judge Robert Small com­pli­ments the chil­dren for stay­ing so quiet and expresses dis­be­lief at how good they have been at sit­ting still. “It’s the raw milk!” calls some­one from the back of the room. Small says, “I didn’t hear that.” At half past three on the sec­ond after­noon, Schlangen finally takes the stand, eager to talk. Wear­ing a short-sleeve, col­lared turquoise shirt tucked into his blue jeans, he offers long-winded, often-philosophical responses to his lawyer’s ques­tions. When asked to describe the food club, his answer veers into the under­nour­ish­ment of our soci­ety and the attempts of his small com­mu­nity to acquire healthy sources of “nat­ural” food. “This has always been about try­ing to bring local farm sources into the sys­tem to allow a larger com­mu­nity to access that food,” he explains to the six-person jury. Over the next hour and for three hours the next morn­ing, Schlangen’s face and voice remain essen­tially expres­sion­less and unwa­ver­ing as he explains that he is not oper­at­ing a busi­ness but sup­port­ing a way of life for his group’s 140 mem­ber fam­i­lies. The food club leases Samuel’s cows so that, as they see it, Schlangen is essen­tially bring­ing mem­bers the milk they already own. He works long hours and makes no profit. He just wants to con­nect peo­ple with what he sees as med­i­c­i­nal nour­ish­ment. “The real­ity is that the major­ity of the pub­lic doesn’t know what this food is. That’s why they don’t want it. They don’t know they want it.” In clos­ing argu­ments, defense lawyer Nathan Hansen focuses on the ambi­gu­ity of Minnesota’s raw-milk statute and alter­na­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of it. “The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture folks tes­ti­fied that if your spouse went to the farm and picked up milk and brought it home, that would not be per­mis­si­ble under the law,” he tells the jury. “Every sin­gle mem­ber of the house­hold has to go to the farm with money or what­ever they’re going to trade for it and get their own milk. It’s absurd. That inter­pre­ta­tion of the statute doesn’t make any com­mon sense. If you want your spouse to pick up milk and bring the milk home, that’s just nor­mal stuff.” “This food club pro­vides its own bot­tling and they send one per­son with refrig­er­a­tion in his truck, advanced refrig­er­a­tion with a ther­mo­stat, to pick up milk and bring it to drop sites where they can get it,” he adds. “It would be incred­i­bly expen­sive and time-consuming to abide by the Min­nesota Depart­ment of Agriculture’s inter­pre­ta­tion and views they read into this law.” He also argues that the law is dis­crim­i­na­tory against peo­ple who can’t get them­selves to the farm because they are dis­abled or don’t have enough money to pay for gas. State pros­e­cu­tor Michelle Doff­ing Baynes’ final remarks are more suc­cinct. “A per­son in the United States can go into any gro­cery store in the United States and pur­chase an apple and have no con­cerns. A per­son can go into a store in a for­eign coun­try and they may have con­cerns. Why? Food safety laws.” The jury delib­er­ates for more than four hours the next day before releas­ing their ver­dict: not guilty on all counts. In their unan­i­mous view, Schlangen did not ille­gally sell raw milk, oper­ate a busi­ness with­out a license or mis­la­bel the food he dis­trib­uted. As an acquit­tal in a dis­trict court case, the trial sets no legal prece­dents for other raw-milk deliv­ery sys­tems. And the Min­nesota Depart­ment of Agriculture’s posi­tion has not changed. Still, gasps and cries emerge from the twenty or so sup­port­ers who hung on until the very end, says Susie Zahratka, a Schlangen sup­porter who has brought her kids to the trial every day. The chil­dren in atten­dance hug and kiss each other. And when Schlangen walks into the pub­lic area of the court­room, he beams as the group embraces him. “He actu­ally smiled,” Zahrata says. “He doesn’t smile.” A cou­ple of weeks before Schlangen’s trial, I con­tacted a raw-milk farmer named John who I had met more than a year ear­lier at a potluck for peo­ple inter­ested in sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture, the Slow Food move­ment and related issues. John won’t talk to me now, and like Samuel’s, I’ve changed his name to pro­tect him. Given the “polit­i­cal cli­mate sur­round­ing raw milk,” he writes in an e-mail, “we would pre­fer to not draw any atten­tion to our­selves.” Still, I clearly remem­ber the day I met him. After a period of min­gling, brows­ing and sam­pling food at tables of infor­ma­tional dis­plays that included kom­bucha, raw ice cream, local honey and other wares, I lis­tened as Will Win­ter, the mod­er­a­tor of an online group known as Tra­di­tional Foods MN, spent fif­teen min­utes talk­ing through science-based slides that cel­e­brated the nutri­tional virtues of raw milk. Win­ter worked for years as a holis­tic vet­eri­nar­ian, and at the time, was the Minneapolis-St. Paul chap­ter leader for the Weston A. Price Foun­da­tion. The talk he gave that after­noon was a short ver­sion of a two-hour lec­ture he has given around the coun­try. When the slides ended and the lights came back on, I met John and his wife, who cra­dled their new­born son in a sling. Around us, peo­ple munched on a com­mu­nal feast of brats, gin­gered car­rot cashew salad, muffins, dev­iled eggs and other home­made dishes. We talked about their farm, which lies about an hour south­east of the Cities, their twenty cows and the one hun­dred fam­i­lies they sup­ply with raw milk. Even­tu­ally, they asked if I wanted to try some. I zipped up my jacket and fol­lowed John down the street to his white SUV. I braced myself against the blus­tery April day and watched while he opened up the trunk, lifted the lid on a large cooler, and pulled out an ice-cold, half-gallon plas­tic jug. I looked both ways before grab­bing it, and saw no one. John accepted my thanks but refused my money. Then, he walked briskly back to the gath­er­ing. I felt like I’d scored a bag of pot at a party as I watched him walk away before dri­ving home to my hus­band and tod­dler son. Back in my own kitchen, I put the unmarked jug on the top shelf of the refrig­er­a­tor next to a gal­lon of organic milk bought from a nearby gro­cery store. Two con­tain­ers of creamy white liq­uid, they rep­re­sented a sharp divide between two world-views, two ways of life, two forms of faith in what it means to be healthy, vir­tu­ous and free – two philoso­phies that seem to be drift­ing ever-further apart. I looked at them there, side by side. Then, I shut the door.

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