Michael Schmidt, owner and operator of Glencolton Farms near Durham, Ontario, was first convicted of marketing raw milk in 1994. The authorities fined him $3,500 and placed him on two years probation, but Schmidt refused to halt marketing the product. Instead, he circumvented the law by starting a shareholder-style system that allowed his customers to co-own the cows producing the milk. There is a one-time startup fee, then Schmidt charges an annual fee for feeding, milking and caring for the animals. The arrangement has proved so popular, Schmidt said, that he has a three-year waiting list of people wanting to participate.
For the past 12 years Schmidt has continued to supply raw milk products under his arrangement in the face of his conviction. He even sent a letter to the ministry of food and the ministry of health stating his intention to continue selling raw milk, and offering to help regulate raw milk in Ontario. He also threatened to go on hunger strike if such a raid happened again, and local newspapers covered his defiance. With such openness about his operation, Schmidt said the raid did not surprise him, but said it did surprise him that the authorities took so long.
"I was waiting for this for 12 years. I knew it could happen at any time," said Schmidt in an interview with the Owen Sound Sun Times.
On the morning of Nov. 21, Schmidt was leaving his farm to make a weekly drop-off to regular customers with in a bus filled with raw milk products, baked goods, produce and other farm products when government vehicles and officers suddenly swarmed him. They served him with a search warrant and officers in forensic coveralls began to confiscate items from Schmidt's farmhouse, office and the retail store on his property. Investigators told him that they were exploring the question of raw milk as a public health issue and his operation was just one part of the inquiry.
Throughout the day, a police car blocked the entrance to Glencolton Farms and an armed MNR officer made sure no one left the farmhouse unaccompanied. Government vehicles were filled with about $10,000 of equipment used to make cheese, butter and cultured milk; computer hard drives; and around $3,000 worth of dairy products from the retail store. The agency in charge of buying and selling milk from producers, the Ontario milk marketing board, expelled Schmidt after his 1994 conviction, so he was ultimately charged with operating a milk-processing plant without a license after the Nov. 21 raid.
Two days after the raid, Schmidt made good on his promise and announced his hunger strike during a rally at his farm. He vowed to live on one glass of milk a day until the MNR returns all of the items they seized in the raid, the province compensates his operation and the 150 members of his shareholding operation for losses, and the province guarantees they will never interfere with his farm again.
In response, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Member of Provincial Parliament Bill Murdoch proposed a private member's resolution to be held Thursday, calling for an all-party task force to examine the issues surrounding legal raw milk distribution. He also criticized the use of MNR officers in the raid, noting that they were needed elsewhere. Both Schmidt and Murdoch have said it is hypocritical to allow the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, yet prohibit consumers from choosing raw milk. Schmidt's shareholders are also moving to help him in his fight, and have formed an organization to support consumers' rights to drink raw milk and distribute information about raw milk products. Schmidt said the organization might even file a suit against the government for preventing them from having a choice between raw and pasteurized milk.
Licensed and labeled raw milk is commercially available in 28 U.S. states and in most of Europe, but under the 1938 Canadian Health Protection and Promotion Act, the sale or giving away of raw, unpasteurized milk is prohibited. Ontario has its own Milk Act with similar restrictions. According to health officials, the heating-and-cooling process known as pasteurization is vital for eliminating disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.
"If (raw milk) is not properly handled, it becomes very hazardous, especially for children," said Dr. Hazel Lynn, the medical officer of health at the Grey Bruce Public Health Unit in Ontario.
Authorities have not released the details of the case, but Lynn said the investigation of Glencolton Farms began with reports of illness in two children, which she suspected were caused by raw milk from Schmidt's farm, although she noted that no definitive link had been traced there. Schmidt said he had received no complaints of illness from any of his customers and thinks the illnesses really came from infected meat.
Bill Green, one of Schmidt's customers, said that he needed to drink raw milk to settle his ulcers, and that he couldn't keep pasteurized milk down. Schmidt has said in his view it is not a question of whether farm fresh milk is better than pasteurized, but of giving consumers a choice.
The Ontario farmer's run-ins with Canadian authorities did not end with the raid. A week later, Schmidt was selling organic food from his bus in a parking lot north of Toronto when police and public health authorities suddenly surrounded him. As the officers did not have a warrant, Schmidt refused to allow them to board the bus, and they finally left after an hour-long standoff.
Schmidt's hunger strike continues with no end in sight, as Premier Dalton McGuinty has said the raw milk ban was a serious matter of public health that he is not interested in reexamining.