GLOBAL FOOD REPORTER
In a surprise verdict that stunned even the defendant, a justice of the peace has dismissed a slate of raw-milk-related charges against Ontario dairyman Michael Schmidt and simultaneously delivered a boon to Canada's food-rights movement.
Mr. Schmidt supplies raw milk to a small network of people with ownership shares in his dairy cattle. He was facing 19 charges related to public health and milk marketing when, looking grim, he took his seat before Justice of the Peace Paul Kowarsky in a Newmarket courtroom yesterday morning.
Throughout the three hours it took Mr. Kowarsky to read out his 40-page verdict, the outlook for Mr. Schmidt's cow-sharing operation flip-flopped from promising to doomed and back again. But Mr. Kowarsky ultimately acquitted the farmer, a rising star in the growing international farming and food-rights movement, on the basis that the unique structure of his operation does not violate Ontario's stringent milk-marketing laws. Nor does Mr. Schmidt's provision of unpasteurized milk (which is illegal to sell in Canada) to shareholders endanger public health, Mr. Kowarsky said.
The judgment, the culmination of a legal battle that was launched in 2006 after a raid by the Ministry of Natural Resources on Mr. Schmidt's farm in Durham, Ont., does not mean raw milk can be commercially sold in Ontario. The decision also remains open to appeal. However, it gives a boost to the burgeoning sector of creative farm-to-consumer food delivery-programs, including "cow-shares," which have grown in popularity as mistrust in the industrial food system has increased.
"What I did foremost was make sure that farmers have the rights to engage in private contracting with consumers who make an informed choice," said Mr. Schmidt, who called the ruling "brilliant" but admitted he "didn't expect such a clear verdict."
He has battled with public health officials and government milk regulators since the first crackdown on his raw-milk operation, in 1994. Unpasteurized products were seized from his farm, but none were linked to illnesses, nor were bacteria levels found to be beyond consumable levels.
Mr. Schmidt, who was born in Germany and has a master's degree in agriculture, had young children at the time and pleaded guilty to the charges, to "protect the family," he said, and to stop a barrage of break-ins at the farm.
After a two-year probation, he began to refine his operation with the aim of developing a legal means of providing raw milk to consumers who seek out the product because they believe it has superior health benefits. He drew on precedents in several European nations and U.S. states that have legalized a range of raw-milk distribution systems.
To avoid violating the technicalities in the Ontario legislation that regulates commercial milk facilities, Mr. Schmidt set up a "milk house" attached to his barn. He never advertised, and he refused to sell the raw milk or related products. Under his model, consumers could obtain them only by visiting his farm for tours and informational sessions, and then purchasing cow-share memberships that constitute ownership in an animal for six years, the duration of its milk-producing life.
In spite of those efforts, the operation was raided by government officials again in 2006. That led to a week-long trial last year, in which Mr. Schmidt defended himself as someone who was not attempting to circumvent the law, but to work within its confines.
Publicity on the issue has led to a doubling of his cow-share members, who now number around 200. Many of them packed the court yesterday and gasped audibly when the verdict was delivered. Mr. Schmidt joined them in cheers that ended with his declaration of an impending run for provincial office.
"I don't think the battle ... for food rights is finished," he said. "This is a starting point. People need to learn to stand up even when it seems it's impossible to achieve change in our interpretation of the law."