August 3, 2011 by Leah
Anyone who has been following this blog for the past year knows how much time and effort I devoted to finding pastured chickens for delicious eating. (See this link, and this one, and this one, and this one.) When I finally realized that the chickens from Healthy Family Farms are truly raised on pasture with no soy feed or artificial anything, I resigned myself to driving out to Hollywood or Santa Monica once every couple of weeks to buy chickens. I’m now at the point where I enjoy the ritualistic aspect of those early-morning solo drives. So then what happens? The government ARRESTS MY FARMER, Sharon Palmer. She’s in the Ventura County Jail as of this morning, booking number 1250793, bail set at $120,000.
According to the LA County Sheriff’s Department, Palmer, one of her employees, and the owner of a raw foods buying club in Venice, were arrested today on a thirteen-count complaint that includes four conspiracy charges. James Stewart, the owner of Rawsome, had his bail set at $123,000 and he isn’t allowed to take out a bond to get himself out. The store was raided and a bunch of milk and other products were destroyed. I keep seeing the number $10,000 thrown around as the value of the milk that was poured out.
Victoria Bloch, the employee of Healthy Family Farms, is in the L. A. County Jail with bail set at $60,000. This is the woman who, when I was first getting into ordering from Healthy Family Farms, emailed me to let me know I was a few days late getting my order in but she’d rush it specially for me to be able to pick up at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market that weekend. She is SO nice. And now she is in the Century Regional Detention Facility (of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan fame).
Here’s a video of what was going on the Rawsome premises this morning. Note the guys with guns and in bulletproof vests. I also like the lady who calls for a citizens’ arrest – I think she epitomizes everything that is sweet about flaky Californians.
The press release put out by the Sheriff’s Department is pretty shocking. These arrests and charges are the culmination of a year-long undercover operation involving NINE agencies – including, oddly, the California Franchise Tax Board and the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. People were initially calling the California Department of Food and Agriculture to register their protests today, but eventually got referred to the Sheriff’s Department. Calling the Sheriff’s Department now gets you an address and a suggestion you send a letter, which I may or may not do.
Since I like to know what I’m talking about before sending off any official letters, I did some quick Googling. Sharon Palmer may or may not have a very checkered legal history. (California doesn’t seem to have a handy court case search engine like Alaska, so I can’t confirm.) Someone with the highly improbable name of Aajonus Vonderplatnitz (whom the internet says is himself a fraud) has set up an entire website with photographs and independent investigations and evidence saying that Palmer, in collusion with Stewart, buys conventional meats and eggs from other farms and repackages and sells them as Healthy Family Farms products.
One of the sources interviewed for the aforementioned investigation was Palmer’s adult son, who by his own admission is or was a member of the Aryan brotherhood and is not kindly disposed to his mother. Investigators also talked to former employees and suppliers, which sources sound a tad more damning than an angry skinhead son; however, James Stewart was mentioned in a bit about how the eggs sold to him by Sharon Palmer were from chickens getting sub-par commercial feed. And yet, they apparently continued to have a business relationship, as they were arrested on charges of conspiracy this morning. I also know Healthy Family Farms has open house days and often invites CSA members and customers to the farm. And, lest I forget, today’s charges of conspiracy had to do with unpasteurized milk products, not with fraudulent labeling or sales practices.
I’m inclined to think Vonderplatnitz is off his rocker and give the benefit of the doubt to Palmer. I’m also inclined to think that California is a weird place, but we knew that already. If there was anything shady going on, it follows that the secret government spies would have noticed it during their year-long investigation, right?
If Palmer and Stewart were selling raw milk products without proper licenses, then that is a crime (I guess) that should probably be dealt with; however, armed raids and a year-long multi-agency investigation seem like a TERRIBLE waste of our tax dollars and state resources. California is in the middle of a never-ending financial crisis and they devote a year of time and money to persecuting raw milk? Fine the offenders, give them time to get the paperwork in place, and move on.
It took me ages of painstaking research to figure out what kind of business license I needed for my home-based editing business. I’d never want to start a restaurant or even a catering business because of all the licensing and liability issues associated with food. My point is, people screw up. Except, Palmer was arrested for the same thing (selling unpasteurized cheese) a week before Christmas in 2008. And it’s actually legal to sell raw milk in California with a license, so having this happen again seems irresponsible.
That said, I agree that the two paragraphs on the dangers of raw milk that were included in the Sheriff’s Office press release are indicative of, erm, governmental overzealousness. As was the ARMED RAID. Palmer’s rather unfortunate legal history won’t make people nearly as sympathetic to this case as they were to the case where the FDA launched a year-long undercover operation against an Amish farmer who was selling raw milk across state lines. (Yeah, that was just this spring.)
So, what’s the takeaway from today’s flurry of research and debunking? The government isn’t making itself look any friendlier to small farmers with this move. I really don’t understand who makes raw milk sales a political priority, but apparently nine government agencies think it is a bigger deal than, say, drugs. Or gangs. Or keeping schools adequately funded. ‘Cause L.A. doesn’t have any problems like those. Nope.
I will cook and eat the two Healthy Family Farms chickens I have in my house, and I’ll probably buy more (depending on how long we continue to live here). I will be grateful that Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy (from which I actually buy my milk) seems to have his act together when it comes to paperwork. He’s kind of my hero. In fact, he’s going to be at the protest tomorrow morning at 8 am at the L.A. County Courthouse, so I might go. (Aaron has asked that I try to avoid getting arrested when we are so close to moving, so I’ll pretend its out of deference to him when I don’t go to the protest. Really, though, I just don’t want to deal with the morning rush hour traffic.)
The huge irony here is that I don’t really care if my milk is raw or not. I really care whether the cows it comes from eat grass (not soy or Frito-Lay chips) and have happy lives. As most of you know, I care excessively about the lives led by animals that become my meat. This is yet another problem that will be magically solved by our impending move – check out Blue Valley Meats. They run an actual butcher shop. In Walla Walla. And source all their meat in Washington. And it’s grass-fed. Oh, and raw milk is legal and sold in stores. So I can continue pretending not to care about whether my milk is unpasteurized.