Raids are increasing on farms and private food-supply clubs — here are 5 tips for surviving one
- Be wary of strangers who want to join your private buying group or herdshare: Before they seek out a search warrant, regulators invariably nose around and infiltrate private buying groups or raw milk herdshares to gain information on “probable cause.” They’ll often make up sad stories as to why they should be allowed to join. Gary Cox of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund recalls how an undercover agent from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets infiltrated Meadowsweet Dairy LLC, a private organization of 120 Ithaca consumers who bought shares to gain access to raw dairy products, in 2007: “He was insistent. ‘I live so far away, and I only come here so very infrequently, so can’t I at least have some (milk) today, PLEEEEEEEASE, because otherwise I won’t be able to get any for a long time.’ Barb Smith felt sorry for him and relented. We know what the consequence was of her kindness.” The consequence was an open-ended search warrant that agents used several times in late 2007 and early 2008 to confiscate product, leading up to a legal challenge to the LLC that is currently under appeal following rulings in New York state courts against Meadowsweet.
- Have a video camera at the ready: Since search warrants are usually specific as to what can be searched and/or seized, a video recording of events inhibits abuses by regulators and other law enforcement personnel. Regulators and law enforcement officials definitely don’t appreciate being videotaped, and sometimes will simply disconnect videos or order targeted individuals to put the videos away. According to Aajonus Vonderpanitz, in the June raid of his Rawesome Foods outlet, “They unplugged our surveillance camera to hide their actions. They threateningly refused video capture of their raid when members commenced filming.”
- Have a plan of action: Much like planning how your family might escape a fire, decide in advance who will handle the video camera, who will collect business cards or take down the names of all agents, and who will interact with the regulators. The regulators and police count on the element of surprise to sow confusion, and keep the targets from responding intelligently.
- Read the search warrant fine print: Sometimes there are limitations on the search warrants that targets can exploit. Vernon Hershberger, the Wisconsin dairy farmer, was able to slow the regulators down because he knew the search warrant in his case likely wouldn’t allow forcible entry, so when agents returned a second time, after he cut the seals on his fridges, he locked his farm store doors and they were forced to leave. They eventually returned with an amended warrant that specifically allowed them to take his computer.
- Keep computer backups: In nearly all such raids, the authorities confiscate computers so they can document transactions and customer interactions. If you don’t have a backup of what’s on your disk, you can literally be put out of business. Moreover, it’s advisable to monitor what information you keep on the computer in the farmhouse or in your food club. There’s something to be said for backing up every few days onto another computer kept off-site.