Just in time for the holidays, four beef carcasses hang from the improvised slaughterhouse at Greg Niewendorp’s 160-acre farm outside East Jordan, in the north of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It should be a happy Thanksgiving because, for the first time in eight months, his farm isn’t under quarantine by Michigan’s Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Niewendorp is free to slaughter cattle from his herd of twenty and fulfill contracts in time for the holidays to the couple dozen friends and neighbors who prize the specially bred grass-fed beef he produces.
Yet it’s also a bittersweet time, because the scars from his battle with the MDA are still fresh. Last February, he refused to subject his cattle to a mandatory state program to test cattle in his region of Michigan for bovine tuberculosis–a program he argues, among other things, is unnecessary because he distributes his beef privately to people who trust his animal-raising techniques, but which the state insists is essential to ensure the beef isn’t tainted.
The state immediately slapped a quarantine on his farm, prohibiting the movement of animals onto or off the property. Then, in August, an MDA inspector arrived, escorted by two Michigan State Police officers, and attempted to convince Niewendorp to have his cattle tested by a vet waiting down the road. Niewendorp angrily ordered the inspector and police off his property, telling them that, without a search warrant, they were trespassers.
Finally, in early October, a team of MDA inspectors and vets arrived again, this time with a search warrant and two sheriff’s deputies–and backed up by a half-dozen state trooper SWAT team members and three emergency medical vehicles down the road.
Niewendorp is convinced that “they would have liked to have killed me,” but this time he didn’t resist, so the vets did their deed and left. All the tests came back negative and the state lifted its quarantine last month.
While the matter is over for the state, Niewendorp says it’s just begun for him. “They’ll need a search warrant to do the test next year.” He’s also organizing the Michigan chapter of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association and says next year more Michigan farmers will refuse the test.
These should be happy times for owners of small farms. Not only are commodity prices way up, but the buy-local movement has caught fire around the country. Rapidly growing numbers of people are embracing the romantic notion of buying food directly from area farmers, sometimes driving hours into the countryside to buy veggies, meat and milk.
The number of farmers markets over the last five years has increased more than 50 percent, to nearly 4,500 from 2,800, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Since the European idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) was adopted by a handful of US farms twenty years ago, enabling consumers to buy shares in the output of local farms, the concept has been adopted by as many as 3,000 small farms across the US. Thousands of consumers are trekking out to dairy farms to purchase suddenly popular unpasteurized milk for its perceived health benefits over the pasteurized stuff, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a promoter of raw (unpasteurized) milk consumption. (Retail sales of raw milk are prohibited in most states).