Story as told by the Bechards’ daughter Katie—trauma turned to triumph. The Fund defended not only this farmer but his family, too, through three years of litigation in a civil case brought by the Missouri State Milk Board and State Attorney General Chris Koster. The Springfield-Greene County Health Department also pursued Mr. Bechard through a criminal case brought by the County District Attorney; with the aid of Gary Cox, Armand successfully appealed the municipal court’s ruling.
Got milk? The rhetorical positive answer to this question is in jeopardy.
If you could have told me when I was 14 and bought my first dairy cow, that milk would become a controversial issue and bring my family to the courtroom, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you could have told me when this lawsuit started that it would take more than three years to conclude, I wouldn’t have believed you. But if I tell you that it has been all that, and we fought it until victorious, would you believe me?
April 8, 2009 is a date that has been imprinted in my memory. A news team was taking some video footage of me delivering our farm’s raw milk to customers in town. Not a big deal, we’ve been in the media alot over the years. They seem to like the poetic side of how we farm—it makes a good story. What I did not know, was that coincidentally, an undercover health department agent was also there buying milk from me, or so I’m told. The day is a bit blurry for me: I was in the Target parking lot when I received the call that my grandfather, who had lived with us for a number of years, had passed away. After going to the delivery place and numbly finishing my work, I went home and began preparing for the 60+ relatives that would be coming in. I wasn’t thinking about whether it was legal or not to sell milk to someone who walked up and asked for it. All I wanted was a nice tall glass of it so that I could get through the funeral.
Things began to unfold slowly at first; we started getting phone calls from Karen Prescott and documents in the mail. Then a citation for a criminal charge. They couldn’t even figure out what to charge us with, apparently, as the first thing written on the citation had been crossed out and something new written in.
We contacted the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF). What should we do? Who should we talk to? The miracle was this: we had only joined FTCLDF a mere 4 months previous. We had no need of their services or any foresight that we would; we simply appreciated what they were doing for the farmers who did need them. We wanted to support that. Now they were supporting us.
The week of Thanksgiving was when the storm really hit. We were butchering turkeys when the news stations started calling and asking us about the case filed against us by the Attorney General. “Can we have an interview?” We had not been informed of this case, had no idea what they were talking about, and were up to our elbows in turkeys anyway! That week turned into a nightmare. It is our busiest work-week of the year anyway, and then we had the press, lawyers, and our future livelihood to take care of. Somehow we still managed to cook a turkey, sit down, and give thanks for the many blessings we still had.
We started learning things through this. No matter how many liberties they try to take away, you still have family. God still provides for your needs.
It had also caused me to become distrusting. I no longer believed that a person calling about raw milk really wanted to buy it. They were probably trying to get me to say the wrong thing. I could not continue in this fear, and had to learn again to trust God to protect me and to trust people, even at the risk of getting burned.
November 30, 2010 Our lawyer, Gary Cox, went over the protocol with me; they would ask questions, I would answer. He told me that I was in control, I could take breaks, also how to answer their questions, which words to use, which words not to use, and to look to him if I needed help. My parents were with me, but could not speak. They and my sister had already been through their depositions.
I was young and nervous, but trying my hardest to appear calm and collected. Of course, I could not just give the speech that had formulated in my mind during the night hours when I couldn’t sleep. The Assistant Attorney General, Jessica Blome, was doing the questioning. We began, and she quickly realized that I was going to use my 5th Amendment right to remain silent, because the answers to the questions she was asking could harm our criminal case. We took a break and she came back offering—no, demanding I take—full immunity. Sounds cool, right? Like something from a movie!
What this meant for me was that she could ask me any question she wanted, and I had to answer. The only guarantee I had was that they could not use anything I said to bring *new* criminal charges against me or my parents. Here, sitting across from me, was the face to all that my family had been through in the previous year and a half. The woman who had ruined our holidays. The embodiment of the “they” who watch your every move and are ready to catch you at any turn. And now I had to tell her everything. Had to betray my dad, right in front of him. Had to recall painful memories, and share the details. Had to recall things from nearly two years previous.
I had to think of the truth, the past, my dad, my family, our livelihood, and of my word choice, and not get one word wrong, because I was under oath. I had to weigh every sentence from twenty different angles and answer before the pause grew too long, as it did at one point, prompting Karen Prescott to remind me that I was under oath — an insult to my honesty.
The outcome of this lawsuit was riding on my words.
I was not prepared for that kind of mental torture.
It was hell.
My mom and I left after the questioning. Our attorney, Gary Cox, had his chance to question the prosecution. He worked quickly through his outline, promptly getting Karen Prescott to admit that they had no jurisdiction over us. We expected quick judicial results after this, but the Attorney General’s office went strangely quiet for over a year, leaving the lawsuit in limbo.
THE CRIMINAL APPEAL
Meanwhile, my dad spent hours and late nights studying and preparing to go to court for the criminal case in Springfield. While trying to maintain our farm and provide for his family, he simultaneously earned his layman’s law degree. Between Christmas and New Year’s, I stayed up almost every night with him till 2 a.m. typing out motions, editing, rechecking, printing, getting them signed, notarized, and turned into the court before our January 4th court date.
My father went into the courtroom, backed by the prayers of hundreds, and defended our rights. He shot holes through the prosecution’s arguments. God changed the heart of the judge before our very eyes. The man who had been prejudiced against us very blatantly in the beginning, acquitted us of the charges. Lack of evidence. They didn’t even have the names of the people they had bought milk from.
I have never been more proud of my father. He shone forth courage and strength that day, an honorable man able to stand before a judge and hold to what is right.
We had won!! The tears came before the reality. We had a celebration in our home the next evening and every room was packed with people who love us. We sang hymns of praise to God and the walls of our living room resonated with the gratitude in our hearts. We turned two TV’s on so that everyone could watch the news broadcast.
With that much behind us, life slowly began to return to normal. Besides the occasional stranger recognizing us—and saying, “Hey, aren’t you that farmer…?”— the lawsuit began to become less of a current part of life, and more of a past-tense thing. At times it is difficult to talk about. It still seems to come up at every dinner party. It’s not something I would have written into my story. I mean, who wants to be known for being sued by the state? Criminal charges as if you had done something wrong? That’s not who I am. All I wanted to do was provide wholesome food to people. Not be in the news. But this is something that God has written into my story. So is my responsibility. I am still learning this. Still accepting it.
THE CIVIL CASE RESUMES
Over a year went by after my deposition before the State contacted us again, wanting to move forward. We knew that to really win this, we would have to go to court. Our lawyer told us that the courtroom would be more grueling than depositions. My dad wanted to protect my mom, my sister and me from that. He had seen how hard the depositions had been on us — how I never wanted to talk about the case.
But the State had made a mistake in waiting. They no longer had a frightened girl on their hands. Somewhere in that time, God had been growing me. Maturing me. With the story of the Hawaiian Princess Ka’iulani who defended her country as my inspiration, I was now ready to take them on. I am a woman who isn’t about to let them take away freedoms that I legally have.
Knowing this, my dad and Mr. Cox continued to fight the case, but with a different angle. Now we didn’t have to settle out-of-court, which the State was looking to do. We were ready to go all the way to the courtroom if we couldn’t get an acceptable agreement. The documents were exchanged. And countered. Back and forth, for months. Finally we sent them a counter outlining how we would conduct business.
They would not just drop the case based on jurisdiction, and had to have some little restriction in there to buffer their pride since they had been so out of place in even pursuing this case. The resulting agreement states that we cannot sell to walk-up customers, but that we can deliver and sell milk to pre-arranged customers. It’s so trivial! This actually gives us more confidence in exercising our rights regarding raw milk, than we had before. No more looking over our shoulder! The agreement says we can deliver, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop us.
After over three years, our case is closed. The reality has taken weeks to set in. Three years. I know we learned so many different things during this. I hope the State has learned that they should know better than to mess with farmers. We deal with crap all the time and we never give up no matter how bad the drought or storm.
As Americans, we no longer have the option of whether or not to be politically active. If you are someone who loves to eat whole food, and have the freedom to choose what you eat, join FTCLDF as a Consumer Member. The time is now. Become aware of the politics in your area. Find a politician to call and tell them how you feel about raw milk and food freedom. If you don’t speak, no one can hear you. And by the way, Facebook isn’t sufficient. If only your friends who agree with you hear you, you are preaching to the choir. Call your representative. Be courteous, be kind, and be active.
Are you a farmer? Join FTCLDF. You could be supporting those farmers who are having to fight to keep those freedoms. And you never know when it will be your turn to stand up for them, and you will need the help of this army. There is no way we could have made it through this without God’s grace and sustaining strength — there were many times that our own was gone. One of those graces was the support of the wonderful, brilliant people and lawyers at FTCLDF.