By Sarah Foster
October 29, 2011


How much are you willing to pay for freedom? That’s the question raw-milk advocate Michael Schmidt may have asked himself a month ago. Whether he did or not, he’s apparently decided to bear the cost however high it turns out to be – which could mean his life.

Michael Schmidt is the dairyman in Ontario, Canada, who has been on a hunger strike in an attempt to focus public attention on the plight of raw milk producers, like him, and their would-be customers. He is 57, and for 17 years — nearly a third of his life — he’s been trying to find a solution to the legalization of raw milk. So far his struggle has cost him the loss of much of his farm acreage, which was sold to cover legal fees and fines incurred following a government raid in 1994.

[Note: For background on the origins of Schmidt’s struggle, check out Sally Fallon’s article: The Incredible Story of Michael and Dorothea Schmidt and Real Milk in Canada, which covers his story up to 2000.]

Freedom activists have rallied with their support. A barrage of emails, faxes and letters from sympathizers around the world have been sent to Ontario Premier, Dalton McGinty urging him to meet with Michael. But the premier continues to ignore him and word has been received that emails in Michael’s support are being deleted from the government webpage.

Neither McGinty nor Schmidt, it seems, are willing to “blink”

Michael’s present “hunger strike for food justice” is in response to a lengthy ruling handed down Sept. 28 by Ontario appeals Judge Peter Tetley, convicting Schmidt of 15 of 19 charges laid out in 2006 under Ontario’s Health Promotion and Protection Act and the Milk Act. Tetley’s decision overturned an earlier verdict by Justice Paul Kowarsky who had dismissed those charges, ruling that “cow-sharing” – a system in which people purchase a “share” of a cow and its milk — is a legitimate way of providing unpasteurized milk to informed consumers who desire to drink it.

“As a result of the recent legal developments in British Columbia and Ontario I will once again enter into a hunger strike as oftoday, to activate and encourage more and more people to openly join this battle for our fundamental rights and freedom to choose our food and our health,” Michael announced in a Food Rights Declaration he wrote for his blog, The Bovine, on Sept. 29
Since that date he’s drunk no fluids other than water and solid foods are out of the question.

Going this long without food has definitely impacted his health. Michael is reported to be looking very gaunt, which isn’t surprising having lost over 30 pounds, and he is no longer able to do farming chores. Nonetheless, Schmidt has given no indication of breaking his self-imposed fast unless and until Ontario Premier Dalton McGinty has sat down and talked with him.

That’s for starters. What Michael is hoping for is to be able to talk with elected officials like McGinty and people in the food and health bureaucracies – people who are in a position to make things happen and will actually do so.

His ultimate goal is the legalization of raw milk in Canada. What he does not want is a sit-down session with McGinty where he (Schmidt), explains the benefits of raw milk and McGinty promises to “look into this very serious matter.” Nor does he want to be set up for a meeting where he is allowed to explain his position to the unenlightened of the Health Authority – and in the end nothing happens.

You know the kind of session I’m talking about.

Michael meets with a bunch of bored bureaucrats, runs through a power-point presentation on the benefits of raw milk as opposed to pasteurized – he may even have called in a couple of scientists to back up his arguments. Maybe McGinty is there, maybe not. At the end of said presentation the “facilitator” (if there is one) or someone in that capacity, says in that tone of voice common to all facilitators:

“Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention and sharing your concerns with us, Mr. Schmidt. We’ll be certain to take them under advisement and get back to you as soon as possible. No, we can’t give you an answer now. We have to study all this. But we will. And thank you again, good bye.”

That is NOT the outcome Michael Schmidt is looking for. Michael doesn’t want to jump through any more hoops. He’s been there, done that.

He wants a serious discussion where, in the end, the production and sale of unpasteurized milk is legal, allowed, and encouraged.

Now a number of Schmidt’s allies in the raw-milk battle were and are opposed to Schmidt’s going on a hunger strike. A common point of view is that the Canadian government would be only too happy to be rid of the tenacious dairy farmer.

That could be. And certainly McGinty has given no indication of meeting with Schmidt. In fact, word is that he has actually begun not posting emails in support of Schmidt on the government website — a petty step by the a bureaucracy, but not unexpected.

Chavez’s Hunger Strike – a Precedent for Michael?

Journalist David Gumpert – who has written extensively about Michael and other activists in the raw-milk movement – posted this moving piece on his blog Thursday in which he recalled Cesar Chavez’s 1968 hunger strike, which was ended only when Bobbie Kennedy agreed to meet with Chavez. It’s a precedent McGinty should consider when deciding whether or not to meet with Schmidt. From Gumpert’s article:

Ontario’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, may well be wondering if meeting with Michael Schmidt might involve a loss of “face”…that he will look weak if he accedes to the dairy farmer’s request.

He might want to take a look at the photo here. It’s from March 1968, and shows Robert Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from New York, and a candidate for the Presidential nomination, meeting with migrant farm leader Cesar Chavez on day 25 of his hunger strike on behalf of laws to protect farm workers. Chavez ended the hunger strike after meeting with Kennedy. And here is some video footage of Kennedy speaking to reporters after meeting with Chavez.

Is It Worth it?

At this time there’s no way of knowing how the story will end. Will McGinty finally pick up the phone and give Michael a call? We hope so. But if he doesn’t? The end in that case seems certain. Michael has known from the beginning that this was a high-stakes gamble.

I’m going out on a limb here and suggest why Michael Schmidt remains so adamant and is willing to lay down his life down to advance the cause. And isn’t being able to purchase raw milk just a tad trivial. I mean, we’re not talking about abortion, or voting rights, or serious stuff like that. Or are we?

As he states in his Declaration:

“This is not about milk; this is about a turning point in regards to individual rights.

“This is a turning point because we the farmers, we the consumers, we as concerned people of Canada are officially rejecting those who pass regulations without respecting our fundamental rights, our fundamental freedom to be and act as responsible individuals.

“We openly challenge and reject those who blindly enforce unjust laws.

“Our fundamental freedom to be and act as responsible individuals.”

That’s what’s at the heart of Michael Schmidt’s action as well it should for all of us. Who of us should dare decide which issues are trivial? And which are worth dying for? Certainly, not I. Surely the right to produce food for oneself and the public, and to engage in honest commerce, is a major right. Given a choice I’d rather have that right – to engage in unregulated, unimpeded trade — than the franchise any day. Admittedly, that’s just me.   

While researching Michael’s this story I remembered an old African-American Spiritual –one of the greatest freedom songs ever sung. Michael may never have heard it, but he certainly embodies its spirit.

O Freedom
O Freedom
O Freedom over me –

And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord, and be free.

Well, it’s not over. David Gumpert and others are urging continued emails, faxes and letters to McGinty – and to your friends to tell them of Michael’s choice. It’s one all who cherish freedom may have to make.

To Show Support:

Michael’s supporters have set up a Support Michael Schmidt Facebook group which has over 4,000 members.

Kimberly Harke, publicist for the Weston A. Price Foundation, is asking friends and sympathizers to contact Michael by email to offer encouragement. “Send your Letter to Michael Selected letters will be published and sent to the media,” says Hartke. “All letters will be forwarded to Michael to give him comfort in these hours of need.”

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