Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Farmageddon


From the Netflix blurb: "Farmageddon tells the story of farms that were providing safe, healthy foods to their communities but were forced to stop."

I have a list of documentaries lined up on Netflix that I have not taken the time to watch, and today I decided that it was important to do so. I chose to watch Farmageddon because it seemed to be of the most interest to me, considering my interest in local and sustainable farming, as well as my current connection with EverythingFarm.com.  I knew what kind of film it was, and that I would sit and slowly simmer with outrage. Still, it's important. So I watched.

Milk is good! (1)
The lady who put the film together, Kristin Canty, is a typical mom with a child who had allergy issues and asthma. When she switched the child to raw milk, his allergies disappeared, seemingly healed. Her whole family got healthier because the food they were buying was whole and local, and real. The state eventually shut down her raw milk supplier, and she's now unable to get raw milk without smuggling it in from another state, a Federal offense. Yes, you read that right - it's illegal to go into another state and buy raw milk for your own personal use.

As an aside, the Center for Disease Control has a whole FAQ up about raw milk and the terrible dangers of drinking it. What they don't mention is that they recently were forced to admit that no one has died from drinking contaminated raw milk (and they don't mention that several people have died from drinking pasteurized milk). There's a lot of manipulation and lies involved when it comes to the wording on these "official" websites. It's scary to think that these people are supposed to be the ones interested in our safety.

Lambs frolicking (2)
To return to the film, there is a section about a sheep farmer in Vermont who was targeted by Linda Detwiler (then part of USDA). The Failace family brought in sheep from the UK and Australia as part of their family business. They willingly submitted to the month of isolation before leaving the UK, then another two full months of isolation in America, in order to prove the safety of their herds. They kept full medical records, went through all required inspections, and did more than they were asked in keeping their sheep healthy and happy. After following through, they began raising their sheep and enjoying their new farm life. Then the inspections began, and the raids, the removal of milk "for testing" and eventually the removal of all their sheep and most of their equipment.

All this was done in the name of public safety. The USDA claimed that the Failace's sheep were harboring a variant of Mad Cow Disease, despite all the testing and isolation and such. They even went so far as to go into their hay fields and remove the hay because "it was dangerous," claiming it was being incinerated. Mr. Failace became increasingly suspicious of this, and eventually followed one of the trucks removing their hay. It went to a local landfill and was dumped among the other organic materials. This was how they were disposing of this "dangerous" hay.

Spying? Really? (3)
The government spent millions on this case. They hired people to watch the farm, the people who lived there, and all those who purchased anything from the farm. They investigated anyone who made purchases or who sported bumper stickers in support of the Failaces. After years of fighting, Linda Detwiler was eventually forced under oath to explain that they had no evidence of any sheep or animal on the farm either being ill or even being exposed to a disease. The Failaces won their court case, but at what cost?

I could go on about the various atrocities committed in the name of the government. The movie is full of them. There are important facts that came to light, though, throughout the movie. First and foremost, despite trying on several occasions, they couldn't get anyone from any of the government agencies to talk to them on camera. Not one department would stand up and defend their actions on the small farms.

There are many reasons we have the system we have. There was a time, both in America and abroad, that milk production and food production had no oversight and there was a lot of disease going around. Our society was trying to find more efficient ways to feed the booming population, but the science hadn't caught up yet. Pasteurization, for instance, is not a bad thing per se. It is something we should use when necessary, for the sterilization of milk and other foods during times when we can't be as careful about the safety when it's gathered. During an emergency, for instance, the cleaning routines of commercial cows simply can't be kept up, and pasteurization will allow us to keep the milk coming without causing problems. But in a non-emergency situation, on local farms and at the community level, people can visit farms and make their own decisions as to whether they want their milk pasteurized.

So much paperwork! (4)
The paperwork that is in place for farms is ridiculous. Large farms have to have full time staff to deal with the amount of paperwork they need to process. Unfortunately, similar amounts of paperwork are required of small, family run farms as well, and there is no ability to hire staff to fill out all the forms. The staff are the family and maybe a few friends. Safety is important, yes, but to treat a commercial abattoir in the same way you treat a little backyard farm doing a chicken slaughter for their own family is simply ridiculous. That is what's happening, though.

There was a lot said about the safety and dangers of raw milk throughout the movie. However, one woman who was interviewed at a farmer's market said something that made me really pause. The USDA thinks it's just fine for a mother to feed her child sugar bombs for breakfast and fast food every meal of the day, smoke during pregnancy, and other harmful things, but that it's a Federal crime to buy raw milk for your family. That certainly puts it into perspective.

The question that keeps coming up, in this film and others like it, is what is motivating the government to come down on all these little farms? Honestly, I realize that there are probably statistically as many bad "little farms" as there are commercial ones, but we're just not seeing the numbers. I dislike using statistics for proving things, as they're so easy to manipulate and most people don't really understand them, but I'm not seeing the numbers. The math is wrong. The problems we're seeing are huge ones. Bags of contaminated spinach across the country are not coming from small farms, they're coming from commercial farms.

So we ask again . . . why? The easy answer is to say that the huge agricultural corporations are buying out our politicians, and certainly that's part of what's going on. It can't be all of it, though, because the bottom line is that not everyone in our country is going to want to or be able to purchase raw milk and locally produced organic vegetables. Even with the government on their side, the prices for such items will always be higher than for mass produced eggs, meat, and vegetables. Even if the small farms won every case and suddenly had everything they wanted, Big Farm isn't going away. It can't. It may be part of the answer, but it definitely isn't all of it.

There are a lot of hints as to what's going on, but no clear answers. Last year, the FDA was brought up on charges for blocking the sale of raw milk across state lines. The, ". . . FDA moved the court to dismiss the case, and in its motion stated that a) there is No Absolute Right to Consume or Feed Children Any Particular Food, b) there is No Generalized Right to Bodily and Physical Health."

As a stand-alone statement, that's pretty scary. It can seem rational, if you consider someone who wants to have the right to feed their kid nothing but salt and vinegar chips, certainly, but when approached from the point of view of a family needing to meet the needs of a child with an allergy, it suddenly looks very grim.

Much of the movie showed raw footage of Federal agents involved in raiding, either taken by the various families involved or from security cameras. Sometimes warrants were involved, and other times they were not. In each and every piece of raid footage I saw, there were firearms (many of them) out and being pointed at the families. None of the families were resisting at all, and most were simply terrified and comforting small children who were sobbing with fear. None of the footage included armed people other than the authorities involved. When I looked up a few of the court cases online, I saw not a single mention of resisting, interfering, or otherwise getting in the way of the agents.

I don't want to paint the local police officers and sheriffs with the same tar and feathers as the Feds, though. While the local authorities were included in the raids, none of them looked very happy about what they were doing. In two pieces of footage, the officers were almost in tears, explaining to the farmers that they were required to do this and to please not interfere with the Feds. This does not appear to be a local issue, and that stands true among the small local farmers that I know personally, as well. This is a Federal issue.

Tidy and beautiful (5)
The farms in the film were all fairly tidy, and the animals were clean and appeared healthy. Most of the shots including humans showed the farmers or their children playing with or spending time with their livestock. The farms weren't perfect, though. There was mud, there was cow dung, and there were straggly looking turkeys who had obviously decided to stand in the rain rather than go into their house. Nothing looked unsanitary, and none of the animals appeared to be living in the kind if filth that they would in a factory farm.

The case of Manna Storehouse, a private (not public) business co-op, is frightening.  To deal with a small farm group serving about 100 people, they brought in 11 policemen, all with guns drawn, in full SWAT gear. The Mrs. Stowers and several of her children were held at gunpoint for six or seven hours in a single room of their home. One child, who had been holding a cell phone when the police entered, was forced to the ground and frisked. When the father got home, he was frisked and required to join them. The police took their computers and all their records, as well as their personal food. The charge was "failure to have a food permit", which is a third degree misdemeanor, something that warrants a $500 fine, is not a Federal offense, and is indeed considered very minor.

None of these small farms and co-ops were recipients of complaints. No one got ill from eating their food. There are no health issues at all associated with any of them. The farmers actually invite people in to see their operations, to inspect the living conditions of the livestock. They aren't trying to avoid the law, either, and seem to be accepting of necessary health inspections of their premises.

Why is our government spending millions upon millions of dollars to persecute and prosecute small farms? It really makes no sense. The claims that it's a giant conspiracy make me want to cringe, but as time goes on and I see more and more of this kind of behavior, I feel like there is no other option. I can't find a definitive trail as to "where the money goes" and I can't see who really gets a benefit out of this.

The most terrifying claim I've heard to date is that perhaps "Big Agriculture" is putting things in our food supply to make us more compliant. I don't even know if it's necessary, to be honest. The vast majority seem blissfully unaware that their food supplies are hanging in such a precarious balance. Perhaps that's the most scary thing of all.

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1) Image by Matthew Hull / morgueFile
2) Image by Eric Pruis / morgueFile
3) Image by wintersixfour / morgueFile
4) Image by doctor_bob / morgueFile
5) Image by jade / morgueFile