Michael Schmidt and the Battle Over Raw Milk

Michael Schmidt and the Battle Over Raw Milk

The Ontario farmer is the public face of the movement to legalize unpasteurized milk. Why is he so passionate?

By Brittany Devenyi March 30, 2012

AS I DRIVE down a muddy, narrow road, past acres of farmland guarded by overarching trees, everything looks like a carbon copy of itself. The six-digit numbers, glued to every mailbox, are different at each lot, but the same—in the way a barcode identifies a product, but doesn't reveal anything about the commodity itself. I stop at number 393889. Pulling in, a sign, about the size of two Bristol boards, is nailed to a tree. It reads: "THIS LAND IS OUR LAND, BACK OFF GOVERNMENT," in bold, capitalized red-and-black letters. I have arrived.

The farm is small and unassuming. I walk up to someone who looks like a younger version of the man I was hoping would greet me. He hops off a tractor, hands dirty, and says his father has left. A woman appears, fresh-faced with dark brown hair framing her jaw line. She says the man is visiting his doctor, to monitor his condition. As I am led to the kitchen, I pass the main hallway, where an assortment of plastic toys peppers the floor. Half an hour later, the roaring of a car engine resonates through the window. The stairs creak, steadily, as he enters the kitchen. He sports the same velvet button-up vest and tweed flat cap he wore two weeks prior, but this time, they fit him much more loosely. It's as if his stomach has deflated. He carries an aura of weariness that wasn't apparent before. His eyes are red and glossy, his face is gaunt, his skin sagging. A grin spreads across his slim face. "Are you hungry?" he asks in a thick German accent. "I'm going to bring you something."

He disappears, and reemerges almost as suddenly, offering a slice of freshly baked cake—made with unpasteurized cream—and a glass of homemade apple cider. "I'm the baker in the house," he says, in a way that might make one forget he's been on a hunger strike for the past twenty-four days. He bakes constantly, sometimes for twelve hours at a time. "I didn't start the hunger strike to stop it somewhere," he says. "I stop when I see results." Heading outside to the milk storage room, he holds up a two-litre bottle of raw milk, like one would raise a trophy after winning a big race.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT ENDED his thirty-seven-day hunger strike on November 5, 2011, after meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty to discuss his raw-milk battle. Schmidt says he lost 50 pounds. Had they not met, he says he would have kept going, even if death had been the outcome.

For the past seventeen years, Schmidt, now fifty-seven years old, has been fighting for the legalization of raw, unpasteurized milk—a substance some claim is better for you than regular milk—which became illegal to sell in Ontario in 1938. He believes people should have the freedom to choose the foods they wish to consume, a conviction he traces back to his childhood in West Germany in the years after World War II. "There was not enough awareness to understand what was going on at the time," he says. "That stayed with me... the whole question of, 'What can happen when we are asleep?'"

Schmidt has a master's degree in agriculture, and immigrated to Canada in 1983. Originally, he operated a dairy farm within the system that regulates the distribution of milk in Ontario. In 1992, he cancelled his contract with the Milk Marketing Board to begin his "lease-a-cow" program. Because farmers are allowed to drink (but not distribute) raw milk, Schmidt's scheme enabled consumers to "rent" the animal, thereby circumventing the Board. Two year later, Schmidt's farm was raided. Health inspectors ordered him to stop manufacturing and handling all unpasteurized milk products, and seized $800 worth of dairy merchandise. He ignored them.

His milk considered a health hazard, Schmidt was charged with multiple offences—all related to the sales and distribution of raw milk. He was then forced to sell 500 of his 600 acres of land at Glencolton Farms, in Durham, Ontario, and most of his dairy herd, to cover legal costs and fines. He no longer owns anything; his farm is now part of a cooperative. Despite the setbacks, he kept fighting. "As you lose, you win," he says. "Ownership and possessions mean nothing to me. Anyone can take that away anyhow. The only thing that means something is what matters for the future." Near-bankrupt, he began a "cow-share" program—a strengthened version of lease-a-cow. It exploited a clever loophole Schmidt recognized in the system, whereby interested consumers would sign a contract and co-own a cow to access raw milk. In order to join, people must purchase a six-year membership: $300 for a quarter cow, $600 for half and $1,200 for the entire animal. He began the system for other farmers to join, so rigorous guidelines and sanitation standards could be implemented. Above all else, he hopes fellow farmers will learn from his expertise.

This transition wasn't easy for Schmidt or his family. In 2006, his farm was raided a second time. Twenty-five armed officers marched in, seizing cheese equipment, office files and dairy products. "They came in like they were fighting in Afghanistan," he says. "Just because we were producing raw milk." His then-wife, Dorothea, couldn't handle the pressure, and her faith began to crumble. "She decided it was best to start her own life," Schmidt says. "It just became too much." His five grown children—ranging in age from twenty-five to thirty-six—know he's undaunted, that his stance on raw-milk rights borders on obsession.

Long after the raid, Schmidt was acquitted in January 2010, but the case was overturned in September of last year. He was found guilty of fifteen charges that were laid against him by the province, ranging from illegally selling raw-milk products to failing to obey his 1994 court order. He recently received a letter from the local health unit in Grey County, threatening to shut down his farm, but says the notice won't deter him. A few days after the verdict, he went to Queen's Park for a press conference. "I am demanding that the prosecution and terror against the cow-share operation stops," he says, "at least until the Supreme Court has decided." On November 25, Schmidt was fined $9,150 in court, and placed on probation for a year. It's a sentence he finds laughable, considering the court's persistence in trying to convict him, but he's appealing the court order, and says he'd rather go to prison than pay the fine, purely out of principle. At one point in the courtroom, he was asked if he'd like a glass of water. "No," he said. "Milk please." The crowd chuckled.

SCHMIDT SAYS he's the only farmer who has switched to a farm-share program, in which consumers own a fraction of Glencolton Farms and can help with the harvest. He has over 150 families on board, and three hundred on the waiting list. On Tuesday of every week, people gather in the Christian Community church parking lot in Vaughan to pick up milk and other baked goods.

In an otherwise vacant parking space, cars constantly drive in and out. People walk toward a bright-blue school bus situated at the back end of the lot. Inside, shelves are stocked with fresh breads, handpicked apples, butter, unpasteurized cheese, brownies and two-litre glass jugs of raw milk. Most live in the Toronto area, and have difficulty traveling to the farm in Durham. Instead, the magic milk bus comes to them. Schmidt's thirty-seven-year-old second wife, Elisa Vander Hout, whom he wed last year, sits at the back of the bus, acting as the cashier. Schmidt met Vander Hout when she was a young farmer many years ago, and provided his farm with produce. As an organic farmer, she too was struggling. They eventually decided to team up.

The farm share is a community of sorts. Maria Theresia Roemmelt, fifty-two, says she comes every week, and has been doing so for eleven years. She grew up in Europe, where raw milk is legal. "I find it so frustrating that you have to fight for healthy food," she says. "I don't want drugs or anything—it's a basic necessity of life." But it's not just the health benefits she's concerned about. "Once you have raw milk, you'll understand the difference in taste," she says. "Pasteurized milk is like drinking white water."

Pasteurization—the heating of milk at a very high temperature—destroys healthy bacteria, by killing natural enzymes and damaging the make-up of calcium found in raw milk, says Adele Tevlin, a nutritionist at Medcan Clinic. "Raw milk is chock-full of beneficial bacteria, like probiotics, that aid digestion and protect against certain organisms," she says. Probiotics naturally occur in raw-milk products, like yogurt, but are stripped away when the milk is pasteurized. When yogurt brands advertise their probiotic content, it's because manufacturers inject probiotic cultures (like lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus) back into the yogurt. While Tevlin says this isn't necessarily worse for you, sugars and artificial sweeteners are often added too. She says up to 80 percent of the protein found in raw milk is easy to digest, but when sterilized, the milk is no longer a complete food, meaning it lacks the enzymes required to break down lactose in the digestive system. Tevlin says this is why people develop milk allergies and become lactose intolerant. Some raw-milk consumers call this being "pasteurized-intolerant."

Laws on raw milk are strict, and Tevlin says the government doesn't consider the fact that cows fed grass and hay, living in healthy conditions, will produce top-quality milk. Even the breed of cow makes a difference. This differs from most factory farms, where cows produce about three times more milk than Schmidt's, and conditions are less sanitary: cattle are crammed in cages, beefed up with corn and injected with artificial growth hormones. As cows' stress levels rise, their system activates the pathogens that cause disease.

Schmidt acknowledges that milk has to be regulated, as do all food products. "I'm not talking for unlimited food freedom," he says. "I'm talking for responsible food freedom." Today, more and more people are educating themselves on the benefits of well-produced raw milk. In many cases, Schmidt has been their catalyst. Raw-milk rallies pop up almost every week.

AS I CONTEMPLATE approaching a small cluster of about thirty protestors at Queen's Park in late October, one energetic man finds me instead. "I saw you glancing over at us," he says. Before I can even gather his name, he exposes his stomach, as if trying to court me with his immortal-like abdominal muscles. An athlete, he confirms. "This is why I drink raw milk," he says. "It's my lifeblood." As we walk toward the group of protestors, now forming a semi-circle around us, a few shout out their reason for drinking the substance, while others feed off of their answers. "Old McDonald had a Farm, Until it Got Raided," reads one sign. "The Right to Choose Good Health," screams another. Other recent protests have taken place in the United States; one group of moms served raw milk and cookies in front of the Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. They call themselves the "Raw Milk Freedom Riders." On November 23, 2011, raw milk rallies spread coast to coast in Canada, paying tribute to the 2006 raid on Glencolton Farms. 

"Michael is not advocating for unlimited raw milk," says Robert Kuenzlen, Harmony Organic's director of marketing. "He is saying that farmers need to be certified, inspected and regulated." While many farmers say they are grateful for his perseverance, Schmidt says he has yet to meet one who would do all he has done. "I admire Schmidt's courage and passion in pursuing what he believes in," says Ted Zettel, the general manager of Organic Meadow dairy products. "I don't share that feeling or passion, but drinking raw milk is an issue I'm willing to risk my health over."

People may be willing to take their chances, but Health Canada says possible benefits are outweighed by the risk of illness. In 1991, it made pasteurization mandatory in every province that had yet to ban the substance. Health Canada claims raw milk contains potentially harmful bacteria, like salmonella, E. coli and listeria. Its website says pasteurization is necessary because it kills the organisms that cause disease, while keeping the nutritional properties of milk intact. It also mentions that the number of food-borne illness outbreaks from milk have decreased since pasteurization became mandatory. Between 1975 and 1982, Health Canada says there were forty-five raw-milk outbreaks, and 644 people became ill. Since 1998, only seven reported outbreaks were linked to raw-milk consumption in Canada. Schimdt says this statistic is unfounded. "Food-borne illness and diseases were reducing long before pasteurization came into place," he says. "They always use such a simplistic approach, saying since pasteurization was introduced, nothing else has changed. But things have changed."

Jim Chan, the manager of food safety for Toronto Public Health, believes it is important to follow these standards, even if they are broad. "We look at public health as general public health for the whole population," he says. "So there is always a risk associated with consumption of any unpasteurized dairy product." A risk, no matter the quality, no matter the location, no matter the farm.

BEHIND GLENCOLTON FARMS, cows dot the lush green fields. A wooden sign with red-painted legs lies on the ground beneath a tree. It reads "FRESH ORGANIC EGGS" in yellow, the paint beginning to chip. Walking on, Schmidt's three-year-old son, Oliver—one of his and Vander Hout's two young children—appears. "Oh, who's this?" Schmidt says. "I thought you were my little teddy bear." We enter a large, open barn, with an all-encompassing, picture-perfect symphony stage as its backdrop. Large white pillars guard the platform, as if it were plucked out from a professional concert hall.

Last summer, this stage was transformed into a mock-courtroom. The musicians dressed in black, with one standing behind a wooden podium, donning a long, curly white wig. Others sat behind a jury stand, while the performer of the hour wore a straw hat and button-up vest. About six hundred people filled the barn, entranced by a concert featuring some of the world's most famous operas. "My cows live in pasture, they roam around free-e-e-e-e-ly, in winter they eat my own ha-a-a-a-y," belted out the Schmidt look-alike. "He sa-a-a-ys his milk is safe and beneficial. Let's fill our glasses everyone, a-a-a-a-and try!" chanted the judge, barking opera orders through chorus. A light gleamed over him, as he cradled a glass bottle of raw milk. The real Schmidt transformed into the conductor for the night, flicking his baton up and down in a swift, assertive motion. He sported a black dress-suit, hair carefully groomed, as if he had been doing this his entire life.