Kris Unger owns Dairy Delight, a 100-head herd share operation in Michigan. Dairy Delight’s cows are coddled. They receive a six-month break every year, and are rotationally grazed on over one hundred acres. Dairy Delight herd share owners are devoted to clean, local food, without government interference.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) is a misnomer. They have no interest in “rural development” or promoting successful, small farmers. MDARD has never been a supporter of raw milk. Although it technically allows herd shares, it has expanded vast resources towards harassing small farmers who offer this service.
In 2016, MDARD thought that Dairy Delight’s milk had led to a couple of people falling ill. Dairy Delight’s milk was tested, and it was found to be immaculate. The illness was not due to Dairy Delight’s milk, as a third person in another part of Michigan fell ill with the same unique strain of E. coli.
When MDARD inspectors set out to snoop around on Unger’s farm, she told them to bugger off. To their credit, they did. Perhaps it was because they knew it was a losing proposition to tangle with Unger and her dogs. However, MDARD returned, this time with a search warrant, and raided her farm. They took milk samples and they found the most awful of contraband…muffins. Yes, muffins.
There were other items on the shelves and in the freezer: cookies, local honey, fresh eggs, kombucha, and pasture-raised chicken. All of these items had other peoples’ names and contact information on them. It appeared that these items were brought by herd share owners to sell to other herd share owners.
Unable to find anything wrong with the milk, the inspectors seized the other food items. They filed a complaint in the Michigan Circuit Court, including Unger’s husband as a defendant. The complaint asked for the destruction of the local food items. They offered to “settle” the case with the Ungers. MDARD requested Unger admit to violating the law, and to allow for the destruction of the food. This agreement would lead to criminal charges if food were found in her milk room in the future.
Unger was not having it. She called the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF). FTCLDF attorney Susan Israel immediately filed an answer to the complaint, avoiding a default judgment. Israel then flew from California to Michigan in March to meet Unger and tour the farm. Israel returned in July to argue (and win) two motions filed by the Attorney General’s (AG) office, returning in November for trial. On the eve of trial, the deputy AG relented and settled the case in Unger’s favor. They dismissed her husband from the lawsuit, made no findings of any law violation, and set very strict parameters for future MDARD inspections. While this resolution was not as satisfying as having fifteen angry herd share owners appear for trial, it was a good resolution for Unger and her husband.
To top off the win for Unger, one of the confiscated gallon jugs of kombucha exploded in MDARD’s evidence refrigerator.
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Services provided by FTCLDF go beyond legal representation for members in court cases.
Educational and policy work also provide an avenue for FTCLDF to build grassroots activism to create the most favorable regulatory climate possible. In addition to advising on bill language, FTCLDF supports favorable legislation via action alerts, social media outreach, and the online petition service.
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