Article — From the April 2008 issue

The Revolution Will Not Be Pasteurized

Inside the raw-milk underground

( 2 of 8 )

Schmidt responded to the raid on his farm by immediately going on a hunger strike. For a month he consumed nothing but a glass of raw milk a day. He milked a cow on the lawn outside Ontario’s provincial parliament. This was a battle, he said, for which he was prepared to lose his farm. He was ready to go to jail. Actually, he’d been awaiting arrest for more than a decade. For all that time, he told me, he’d carried a camera with him so that he could take pictures when the authorities finally came to shut him down. “And I upgraded. You know, first it was still, then video, then digital came along.”

The fifty-three-year-old Schmidt doesn’t have the demeanor of a rabble-rouser. His temperament, in fact, is not unlike that of the cows he tends. A large man, he moves deliberately, reacts placidly to provocation. He has thin blond hair, light-blue eyes, and pockmarked cheeks. On the farm he invariably wears black jeans, a white shirt, and a black vest. In the summer he dons a broad-brimmed straw hat; in the winter, a black newsboy’s cap.

When Schmidt emigrated from Germany in 1983, he wanted to start a farm that would operate in a manner fundamentally different from that of the average industrial dairy. Instead of lodging his cows in a manure-filled lot, he would give them abundant pastures. Instead of feeding them corn and silage, he’d give them grass. And instead of managing hundreds of anonymous animals to maximize the return on his investment, he would care for about fifty cows and maximize health and ecological harmony. If he kept the grasses and cows and pigs and all the components of the farm’s ecosystem healthy, he believed the bacterial ecosystem in the milk would be healthy, too.

Schmidt bought 600 acres three hours northwest of Toronto. There he built up a herd of Canadiennes, handsome brown-and-black animals with black-tipped horns. Most cattle farmers burn off the horn buds—a guarantee against being gored—but Schmidt believes it’s better to leave things in their natural state whenever possible. The dangers posed by the horns (like the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk) weighed less heavily on him than the risk of disrupting some unknown element of nature’s design.

The farm flourished under his hand. Schmidt set up a cow-share system whereby, instead of purchasing raw dairy, customers leased a portion of a cow and paid a “boarding fee” when they picked up milk. People were technically drinking milk from their own cows. The animals were, for all practical purposes, still Schmidt’s property, but the scheme made the defiance of the law less flagrant, and health officials could look the other way. Then, in 1994, the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a documentary about Schmidt and his unpasteurized product. A few months later he was charged with endangering the public health.

Because Schmidt believed that his style of biodynamic farming actually secured the public health, he decided to fight the charges. Newspapers began quoting him on the salubrious powers of raw milk and the detriments of industrial dairy. At this time, strange things started happening around the farm. Vandals broke into his barn. Schmidt found two of his cows lying dead in the yard, apparently poisoned. Then an unmarked van ran his cousin’s car off the road. Men jumped out of the van’s back and forced him inside, holding him there for two hours. Schmidt hadn’t been prepared for the struggle to take this turn. He sent his cousin back to Germany, agreed to plead guilty in court, and sold all but 100 acres of his farm to pay the government fines and cover his lost income.

Schmidt is a man of Teutonic certainty, but as he walked into the field soon after he’d sold the land, he was filled with doubt. The morning sun had turned the sky red, and mist hung around the legs of the cattle. While he twitched a stick at his bull, Xamos, to turn him away from the cows, Schmidt wondered whether it was even possible to run a farm in the manner he wanted. If he started selling his milk at industrial prices it would erode his meticulous style of farming. He would lose the direct connection to his customers. He’d have to push his cows to produce more milk. He’d be compelled to adopt the newest feed-management strategies and modernize his equipment. Schmidt didn’t see Xamos coming, just felt the explosion as the bull struck him. Even as he hit the ground, the animal was on him, bellowing. It stabbed with one horn and then the other, tearing up the earth and ripping off Schmidt’s clothes. One horn sank into Schmidt’s belly, another ripped into his chest and shoulder, grazing a lung. Only when his wife charged into the field, flanked by the couple’s snarling dogs, did Xamos retreat. Another man might have taken this attack as a sure sign, a demonstration of the folly of seeking harmony with nature. As Schmidt lay there bleeding into the earth, however, he felt only humility. “Nature is dangerous, yes,” he would tell me later. “But I can’t control it, and I can’t escape from it. I can only learn the best way to live with it.”

By the time Schmidt could walk again, almost six weeks later, he’d decided to continue farming on his own terms. He announced his intentions publicly, but the regulators must have felt that they’d made their point. For years he continued farming quietly, as an outlaw, until the morning that government agents descended on his dairy. After the hunger strike and the other public acts of protest, Schmidt settled in for the long fight. He hired a top defense lawyer in hopes of overturning Ontario’s raw-milk ban.

’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Swine of the Times,” appeared in the May 2006 issue.

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