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Foodie Fight: Behind the Scenes of a Blowup Among Local-Food Advocates

What happens when foodies themselves begin stabbing each other in the back in political and regulatory maneuverings around the local-food movement?
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Foodies like to hear about the alleged transgressions of large corporations like Monsanto, Dean Foods, Tyson, and Cargill in promoting the industrial food system. They see dirty politics -- and dangers to the rapidly expanding local-food movement -- in any cooperation between these corporate entities and regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state regulatory agencies.

But what happens when foodies themselves begin stabbing each other in the back in political and regulatory maneuverings around the local-food movement?

A number of foodies got a taste of the nasty internal politics that can develop out of such a situation. It all grew out of Monday's scheduled hearing in Boston about a proposal by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources to ban raw milk buying clubs -- organizations that deliver milk from local farms to consumers in nearby towns and cities. The MDAR commissioner, Scott Soares, had stated on a couple of occasions that the multi-billion-dollar conventional dairy industry had been lobbying him to crack down on the buying clubs.

The proposal stirred much passion among supporters of locally produced and organic food. 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 working in tandem to encourage a substantial turnout. The OCA put together the many pieces of a pre-hearing rally on Boston Common, including arranging for the presence of Suzanne, a Jersey cow, for public milking. NOFA-MA was pushing 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 huge and vociferous turnout on Monday.

Then, at 5 p.m. on Friday, the MDAR lobbed a grenade. It said in a press release 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 has sent four clubs cease-and-desist letters.

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 of MA 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."

Okay, a little self congratulation never hurt anyone. Most significant, though, the NOFA advisory discouraged 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."

Officials of Organic Consumers of America 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. Spurring such momentum is always a herculean task, and once halted, it 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, at least one of which picked up on the message discouraging attendance on Monday.

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

When a sunny and crisp Monday morning dawned, some 200 protesters assembled on Boston Common, together with Suzanne the Jersey cow, to protest the MDAR crackdown on raw dairies. 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.

For the next three-and-a-half hours, raw milk consumers and farmers alike complained about the crackdown on the buying clubs. Some 50 individuals in total testified, with parents pleading for the commissioner not to interrupt the flow of milk they credited with improving their children's health, and farmers worrying that the crackdown could reduce their milk sales enough to put them out of business. Soares at the end committed only to further hearings on the raw milk topic.

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."

How many people would have been at the Boston rally and hearing Monday if NOFA-MA hadn't discouraged attendance? No one will ever know, but it seems safe to say the number would have been significantly higher.

As someone who worked with OCA in trying to organize the Monday activities, and has followed the emerging push for food rights nationally, I'll add that the decision by OCA to continue organizing the Monday activities after NOFA-MA pulled out grew out of a conviction that regulators and their industry supporters are playing for keeps in opposing wider access to locally produced products like raw milk, and that it's only through ongoing pressure that regulatory agencies and politicians will make changes to reduce barriers to availability. Such public pressure led Wisconsin legislators in recent weeks to pass legislation reversing the state's long-standing prohibition on raw milk sales (though it's uncertain the governor will sign it). Educating and organizing consumers remains a work in progress. But one thing is for sure: 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 be able to gain the same momentum the next time around.

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