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When They Play Hard Ball, It’s Essential We Not Play Wiffle Ball

Posted May 16 2010 10:48am

By David E. Gumpert

Originally published on The Complete Patient .

Domonstrators Monday on Boston Common, near MA State House.It’s taken me a little longer than I expected to recover from the Massachusetts raw milk protest festivities on Monday. I’ve never been involved in organizing a protest. Not that I did a lot of the heavy lifting, but the amount of detail required to put something like that together was pretty amazing. Signs, police permits (a day-and-a-half of one person’s time), arranging for the presence of the Jersey cow Suzanne, police permit for Suzanne, arranging for Suzanne’s poop to be cleaned up, etc., etc.

But I must confess, and confess is probably the right word, the toughest part of the entire affair was dealing with internal wrangling. I had heard talk of internal divisions in connection with the Wisconsin campaign for a law to allow farm sales of raw milk–some farmers opting out of certain demonstrations when it didn’t suit their own interests–but this past weekend, I got my own personal exposure to the realities of what can happen when divisions crop up.

As I said in a previous post, one of the things that  impressed me last week as the activities opposing the crackdown on raw milk buying were being organized was how a number of foodie organizations became actively involved in supporting the Massachusetts buying clubs and opposing restrictions on access to raw milk imposed by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. Several important foodie groups–most notably the Northeast Organic Farming Association (MA chapter) and the Organic Consumers Association –encouraged members to write MDAR and to attend the hearing.

By the end of last week, the two organizations were essentially working in tandem to encourage a substantial turnout. The OCA put together the many pieces for a pre-hearing rally on Boston Common, including arranging for the presence of Suzanne for public milking. NOFA-MA was encouraging its members to testify at the hearing. Media like the Boston Globe began picking up on the event last week. The pressure was building for a large and vociferous turnout on Monday.

Then, at 5 p.m. on Friday, the MDAR lobbed the grenade I previously described. It said that, thanks to “the passion and concern on all sides of the raw milk debate,” it was removing the proposed regulation that would have explicitly banned buying clubs. But the seeming conciliation was balanced by MDAR’s commitment to “take such steps to enforce violations” under less explicit existing regulations by categorizing the buying clubs as Milk Dealers; over the last four months, MDAR sent four clubs cease-and-desist letters to buying clubs.

Moreover, MDAR said testimony at the Monday hearing would “be limited” to some remaining technical regulatory changes. In other words, opponents of the crackdown on buying clubs wouldn’t be allowed to testify.

A last-minute maneuver by a state agency to confuse and divide a budding protest shouldn’t have been unexpected. Regulators understandably don’t like to deal with large groups of infuriated citizens, and there have been a number related to governmental actions to restrict access to raw milk, most notably in California in 2008 and in Wisconsin last year and this year.

What happened five hours later was much more unexpected, though. The Northeast Organic Farming Association issued “ an advisory ” to its hundreds of members that seemed to celebrate the MDAR press release as “a testament to our perseverance and passion…Thanks to a lot of hard work from many people, we have played a part in beating back, however temporarily, regulations that would have deeply harmed Massachusetts dairy farmers and diminished food rights for everyone. Our message was clearly heard by MDAR, and many new supporters have joined us along the way thanks to our outreach and education efforts over the last few weeks.”

While a little self congratulation never hurt anyone, the NOFA advisory was most notable for discouraging its members from attending the Monday rally and hearing. “MDAR has made it clear that they will NOT hear testimony about the on-farm purchase rule or the buying club prohibitions at the Monday hearing, so that is no longer an opportunity to be heard.”

I was seeing things mostly from the perspective of Organic Consumers of America, and its people were stunned. NOFA-MA seemed to be pulling the rug out from under the organizing effort, and in the process, stopping in its tracks the momentum for a major protest on Monday. As has been discussed frequently on this blog, getting consumers engaged on behalf of farmers is always a herculean task, and once halted, momentum can be difficult to re-kindle.

There followed a series of urgent emails and phone calls by OCA officials and supporters to Julie Dawson,the NOFA-MA executive director. They asked her to at least adjust the language in the NOFA advisory so as not to discourage people from attending the Monday events. She told some of them NOFA-MA didn’t want to encourage farmers to take a day off to attend a hearing they wouldn’t be able to testify at.

Indeed, there was no relenting by NOFA-MA. It pushed its message via its Facebook and Twitter outlets, as well as on foodie blogs, and Kim Hartke’s blog, for one, picked up on the “victory” message discouraging attendance on Monday, at least for a time.

OCA was left to re-group and send out counter-messages–via a revised news release and Twitter and Facebook postings–advising foodies that both the rally and the hearing were very much on. OCA people were convinced that the MDAR couldn’t just arbitrarily limit discussion from one day to the next at a hearing it had previouslly given public notification about.

When Monday dawned, some 200 protesters assembled on Boston Common, together with Suzanne, the cow brought by Framingham dairy farmer Doug Stephan, to protest the MDAR crackdown on raw dairies. Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. had flown in from California, and Max Kane from Wisconsin. Then, the protesters walked a few blocks to the hearing room in Downtown Boston and, sure enough, the agriculture commissioner, Scott Soares, announced at the outset that he was reversing the MDAR Friday press announcement about limiting discussion at the hearing. He would hear all comments, including those about the crackdown on the raw milk buying clubs.

As I described in my previous post, some 50 individuals testified over the next three-and-a-half hours.

Afterwards, NOFA-MA remained defensive about its decision to pull out of supporting the Monday event. When I asked Jack Kittedge, NOFA-MA’s social action coordinator, if there had been some kind of quid pro quo with MDAR for pulling its support, he said, “No quid pro quo. What we were doing was in response to the DAR move. We didn’t expect anything further, except what they promised in their retraction that they would take a broader look at the issue. We expected, and still do expect, as the primary local group which has been working on this issue with farmers for ten years, that we will have a chance to put our two cents in to what that broader solution looks like. Hopefully it will be ways to get even more raw milk to Massachusetts consumers.”

Kittredge also admits NOFA-MA had a warning at least a couple hours before the MDAR posted its press release that something was coming, though he maintains his organization had no knowledge of exactly what MDAR would put out.

There’s no telling how many people would have been at the Boston rally and hearing Monday if NOFA-MA hadn’t discouraged attendance, but it seems safe to say the number would have been significantly higher.  

People at OCA became ever more committed to organizing the Monday activities after NOFA-MA pulled out, based on several convictions. First, it’s only through ongoing pressure that regulatory agencies and politicians will make changes to reduce barriers to availability of locally produced products like unpasteurized milk. Such public pressure has pushed legislators to back consumers in California (SB201) and in Wisconsin (even if the governors don’t necessarily go along). Second, organizations can’t get consumers all worked up about an issue, then pull the plug on the effort at the last minute, and expect to automatically be able to gain the same momentum the next time around. And third, there’s a general acknowledgment that the people pushing for the crackdown on raw milk aren’t the people who are most visible–in the Massachusetts case, MDAR commissioner Scott Soares. More on that matter upcoming.

NOFA-MA obviously decided it could best serve its farmer members by going its own way, essentially striking a separate deal to gain favor with MDAR. As I told a number of people at NOFA-MA, that is most likely an illusion. MDAR’s commissioner has made it clear he is much more concerned about protecting his job than he is about protecting Massachusetts dairy farmers, and besides, memories are short.

No, consumers and farmers need to be united if they are going to have any chance at all against the edifices that are Big Dairy and Big Ag, and the regulators and politicians under their influence. They are playing hard ball.

***

Other fallout from the MA DAR pre-hearing and hearing shenanigans: The Organic Consumers Association has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general charging that MDAR’s failure to allow all consumers to attend the hearing violates that state’s Open Meeting Law. According to OCA’s complaint, “A number of people (we estimate between 50 and 75) were prevented from entering the hearing room by DAR staff who stated that allowing additional people to attend the hearings would exceed the rooms’ capacity.  These people were directed to another room that lacked any visual or sound connection to the hearing room.  Only as individuals left the hearing room were additional people allowed, on a one-by-one basis, to enter the hearing room.”

OCA charges that the attendance limitation was deliberate, stemming from the 5 p.m. Friday press release, and the buy-in by NOFA-MA. “Responsibility for the size of the room falls upon the agency having control over the arrangements, not upon members of the public who are trying to exercise their rights to address and petition their government…Moreover, the DAR itself anticipated a large amount of interest in its proposed regulations.  In an attempt to reduce attendance, it posted an announcement on its website after hours on Friday, May 7, attempting to withdraw a controversial provision of the proposed regulations and contacted at least one large organization, which withdrew its request for its members to attend.”

Too bad NOFA-MA, a well-meaning organization over many years, wound up on the wrong side of the events.

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