Big Bills and Big Chills for Honest Organic Inspector

September 19, 2013
Evrett Lunquist and wife Ruth Chantry, parents of five children, own and operate Common Good Farm. One of two Demeter-certified Biodynamic farms in Nebraska, Common Good produces for their CSA and for the market: herbs, vegetables, free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and pork. Lunquist is an organic farmer and inspector, but he acted as a citizen in this case. Photo courtesy of Open Harvest Coop Grocery.

Evrett Lunquist and wife Ruth Chantry, parents of five children, own and operate Common Good Farm in Nebraska. They produce for a CSA and the market: herbs, vegetables, free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and pork. Photo courtesy of Open Harvest Coop Grocery.

On December 7, 2011 the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) inadvertently violated its own policies and released the name of a Nebraska man who had accurately reported a farmer who was flouting the legally binding organic rules.

In so doing, the NOP unleashed upon Evrett Lunquist a multi-year plague of legal pleadings, and a barnload of  legal expenses to defend himself.

After his name was released in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the man who correctly reported the violations, Biodynamic farmer and part time inspector Evrett Lunquist, was sued for $7.6 million in a Nebraska Court by Paul A. Rosberg, the vengeful farmer who had violated organic rules. Later in the proceedings, International Certification Services was added as a defendant.

After more than 18 months of tedious hearings and a numbing cascade of motions filed by the plaintiff, Lancaster County Judge Paul D. Merritt finally in August 2013 issued a summary judgment dismissing the case.

not-organic-After the expensive ordeal of defending himself against the allegations unleashed by the NOP’s procedural error, Lunquist, who followed the letter of the law acting as a private citizen when he initially reported the violations, had racked up more than $43,000 in legal expenses. While he received no support or acknowledgement of responsibility from the NOP, he and his family did find generous support from their church and their community. I have previously reported on this case both here and here.

logoThis convoluted case calls into question the ability of the USDA and its National Organic Program (NOP) to stand behind citizens and inspectors who report violations of organic standards. Consequently, the case has sent a palpable chill through America’s network of organic inspectors, and may thereby compromise consumer confidence in the integrity of the USDA’s “Certified Organic” label. Meanwhile, another kind of food certification — Certified Naturally Grown — is emerging.

Through its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which supervises the organic program, the USDA said it was unable to comment on the case. AMS and NOP were also apparently unable to find a way to support Lunquist in this lawsuit, as requested by Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry at an Ag Appropriations subcommittee hearing April 18, 2013.

AMS Administrator David Shipman responded at that hearing: “We made a mistake…It is really regrettable. I have looked at this case a number of times and sat with legal counsel trying to figure out how we can in some way help that individual…but the avenue to actually help in a financial way, I have not found a path forward on that yet. It is an extremely regrettable situation, and we aware of it.” Shipman has since retired.

A year earlier, as the case against Lunquist dragged on, organic program Administrator, Miles McEvoy published a policy statement on how the agency handles complaints about organic certification.

“Organic integrity relies on the ability of inspectors to register complaints without fear of reprisal. A ‘chilling effect’ from the threat of disclosure and retaliation could make it much less likely that individuals will report to the NOP suspected fraud, misconduct, or other actions that undermine organic integrity.”  — Margaret Scoles, IOIA

Posse Comitatus Rides Again?

Plaintiff Paul Rosberg represented himself pro se in this case, as he has represented himself often. According to court records, Rosberg has filed several dozens of lawsuits in Nebraska over the past 30 years.

Stack-of-foldersThe plaintiff’s legal attack in this case, and in others, closely parallels the philosophies and strategies of the Posse Comitatus, a loosely organized far-right social and survivalist movement. The movement has pioneered the use of false liens and other forms of paper terrorism.

After having been found to be out of compliance with organic standards, Rosberg threatened to bankrupt Lunquist. Then in a March 5, 2012 letter with an ominous subtext, Rosberg wrote: “Please let me assure you I WILL NOT do any physical damage to you or your family. I am a Christian and I have a wife and 16 children.”

As someone who has been involved in dozens of lawsuits, Rosberg proved adept at disruptive strategies. In pursuing Lunquist – who acted carefully within the law to protect the public from fraud — Rosberg filed over 30 pleadings, motions or objections, drastically dragging the case out over time before his complaint was finally dismissed this summer.

In an interview before one of the many hearings in Lancaster County Court, Rosberg told me that he owned 260 cows and 240-acres of farmland, and that he leased two thousand more acres of land for farming. “I’m a sharecropper,” he said.

Meanwhile Back at the Farm: Hiring a Hit Man

During the stretch when Rosberg was pressing his suit against Lunquist, he and his wife Kelly were indicted by a federal grand jury on a separate but related matter: six counts of fraud for selling misbranded meat through their company, Nebraska’s Finest Meats, to the Omaha Public Schools. If convicted they face fines and prison terms.

hitOn Friday the 13th of September, 2013, just days before yet another hearing to assess legal fees in the dismissed suit against Lunquist, Rosberg was arrested and taken into federal custody. He is incarcerated under contract at the Douglas County Jail in Omaha, Nebraska.

According to the Lincoln Journal Star Rosberg is accused of trying to hire two hit men to murder two witnesses in his federal meat trial. According to an affidavit, on Monday September 1, just one month out from the date of his trial for violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Rosberg asked a man and his brother if they would kill two government witnesses. The accuser, who had worked for Rosberg for six weeks, said Rosberg twice asked him to kill two witnesses scheduled to testify for the government at his federal trial.

Rosberg will be arraigned on charges of solicitation to commit a crime of violence.

The Big Chill

Because he was in jail, Rosberg did not appear in court on Monday, September 16 for yet another hearing, this one on assessing legal fees in the lawsuit he filed against Lunquist. The hearing involved a marked measure of paper shuffling and box checking by the judge, to insure his ruling would not be vulnerable to the appeals Rosberg had previously vowed he would file.

After processing the thick stack of exhibits and motions in order, the judge said he would look at everything, and then later rule on the matter of attorney fees. No matter how the judge rules, it seems unlikely Paul Rosberg will have the wherewithal or the inclination to pay Lunquist.

Realizing his situation, Evrett Lunquist long ago asked the NOP to make things right for him, since it was their mistake that brought on the lawsuit. The NOP declined to help with legal costs or to issue a public apology. Over the course of the lawsuit, the agency had been slow to provide documents needed by the defense, thereby driving up legal expenses. The NOP did, however, ultimately provide an official Declaration corroborating the validity and accuracy of Lunquist’s original complaint. At that time the agency stated it would take precautions to ensure this never happens again.

chillLunquist told me his motivation for filing a complaint in the first place was to preserve organic integrity. “If people run roughshod over it,” he said, “then organic will have no meaning. In my mind I was doing the right thing by submitting information. This turn of events has been stupefying.”

In an interview after the September 16 hearing on attorney fees, Lunquist said that the lengthy legal ordeal had been not only expensive, but also nerve wracking. “It should have been a much shorter course of events,” he said.

Last March Lunquist and his attorneys, Gene Summerlin and Marie Jensen, traveled to California to participate in a training conference of the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA), the professional organization of organic inspectors. Lunquist’s attorneys spoke at a workshop on managing the legal risks faced by official inspectors and by private citizens.

IOIAA main point that came across at the meeting is that if you file a complaint outside of the government mandated responsibilities of an inspector, maintaining your anonymity scrupulously is the only way you can assure your name is not released. If your name is released, you are thereby exposed — vulnerable to lawsuits from disgruntled farmers and processors accused of violating the rules. That harsh reality is true whether you are an official organic inspector or an independent citizen, as Lunquist was in this instance.

The USDA said that it was unable to comment on the judge’s dismissal of Rosberg’s suit against Lunquist. While Lunquist has had to defend himself, he has had strong backing from family, church and community.

Onward to Higher Ground

This apparent vulnerability to personal lawsuits has had a chilling effect through the community of organic inspectors, and it threatens to undermine consumer confidence in the integrity of the USDA “organic certification.”

Participants at the inspectors training program earlier this year generally agreed that it is naive to think that your name and contact information will remain confidential if you file a complaint. Almost anything can be ferreted out by virtue of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and by data mining strategies as made apparent this year through the extensive revelations about government or business intrusions into private communications.

Anything submitted to the government can – and very well may be – released. The NOP was legally bound to release a copy of the complaint to Rosberg, but it should have redacted Lunquist’s name, contact, and other identifying information.

Lunquist acknowledged that many observers regard his legal travails as part of pattern that has created the chilling effect for organic inspectors. He told me that several inspectors approached him at the meeting and said they have filed similar complaints, and might well have gotten caught up in similar costly lawsuits.

Lunquist said there was general agreement on the need to act within the USDA mandate for organic inspectors, or to protect your anonymity if you are not acting in that role. If organic inspectors and citizens want to remain private, they must take pains to remain anonymous.

Demeter-USAThe farmers of Common Good have established a website to keep people informed about the case, and to try and raise money to cover the cost of Lunquist’s legal defense. “We have received donations amounting to about half of our legal bills,” Ruth Chantry told me. “That support from our church, our community, and many wonderful people has meant a lot to us.”

Evrett Lunquist and Ruth Chantry’s stories are told in Higher Ground, a documentary film about their Common Good Farm, one of only two Demeter Certified Biodynamic farms in Nebraska. The documentary, produced by Open Harvest Co-op, is posted on Youtube.

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AUTHOR’S DISCLOSURE: I serve on the board of the consumer-owned Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska. Common Good Farm is among 110+ local farms that do business with our co-op. The co-op has donated money to help cover the cost of Lunquist’s defense.

wheat-for-harvest


Humane Husbandry: Nebraska Tries to Blaze a Trail

July 22, 2013

“Nebraska leads the nation in organic livestock numbers and is one of the leading producers of grass-fed beef. In time we will lead the nation in producing and marketing humanely raised livestock.”

- Kevin Fulton, rancher

Out of the smoldering rhetorical and legislative rubble of recent years, a band of farmers – the Nebraska Farmers Union – has stepped forward in a joint venture with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in an effort to blaze new, cooperative market trails that lead to increased opportunities for small and mid-size farmers, as well as to more humane livestock care.

Photo © 2013 by Heather Blanchette

Photo © 2013 by Like a Cup of Tea

Most Americans eat meat of one kind or another (96% of us). Questions about where our meat came from, how the animals were treated when alive, and how they were killed and prepared for our tables, are fundamental. They matter a lot, and in a lot of ways. Thus this joint venture between two groups that might well stand in opposition to each other is a model of national and perhaps international significance.

Nine billion animals are raised for the table each year in the USA. The experience the animals live out on a farm or endure in mass, industrial confinement has economic, environmental, health and moral ramifications.

Meat has of late been engulfed in ferocious conflicts of law and rhetoric, pitting livestock producers head on with animal welfare and animal rights groups. As one of America’s premier meat-producing states, Nebraska is a critical forum for these debates to play out.

sowGestcrate1For over a decade HSUS had been waging a general campaign to get livestock and poultry producers to abandon various industrial-scale livestock management practices that they consider inhumane. In particular, HSUS helped push successful ballot measures in several states to restrict or prohibit sow gestation crates – enclosures that keep female pigs pregnant and all but immobile.

Pretty much all HSUS needed to do was show pictures of the sow gestation crates to the public. The pictures told the story, no narrative necessary. People did not like what they saw. Thus, ballot initiatives prohibiting sow gestation crates were being enacted into law in states around the nation. This engendered rancor among many livestock producers. They felt the crates were safe and efficient, and that science and economics were on their side.

 “Our American Way of Life”

While HSUS was advancing legislatively and in the court of public opinion, industrial agriculture was, and is, coming on strong in state after state with so-called Ag Gag laws, which make it a crime to photograph or film how livestock is managed in industrial settings.

The moral stance of HSUS — the idea that it regards itself as working toward a civil society that “triumphs over ignorance, convenience, and archaic tradition” — was rubbing salt in the wounds of frustrated livestock industry movers and shakers.

Several years ago HSUS considered Nebraska as a possible state for another effort to render sow gestation crates illegal. Because HSUS already had a winning track record in other states, the Nebraska animal agriculture establishment was on red alert. Several large producer and insurance organizations formed a trade organization, We Support Agriculture, to promote their point of view and – pointedly — to thwart HSUS initiatives.

A November 2010 town hall meeting in the capital city of Lincoln to discuss animal welfare wound up as a heated confrontation that produced less than a wisp of understanding on the core issues around livestock-meat. Hot words continued to fly in the aftermath.

americanwayThen about 18 months ago things went nuclear when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (R) blasted HSUS from a national stage near Washington, DC. He spoke before a conference of lawmakers who chair agriculture committees in their respective states. Heineman, a West Point graduate and a former Army Ranger, sought to rally the troops. He called on lawmakers from across the country to join him in fighting HSUS.

Echoing the position of We Support Agriculture, Heinemann said he did not trust the Humane Society. He described it as an organization bent on destruction of Nebraska’s top economic engine, agriculture.

Then he dropped a bomb: “This is about our American way of life,” he said, “and HSUS wants to destroy the American dream for America’s farmers and ranchers. This is about jobs for American families, and HSUS wants to destroy job opportunities for our sons and our daughters and our grandkids.”

In the aftermath of this verbal nuke, the state of affairs vis a vis livestock-animal welfare-meat appeared intractable, a heavily mined legal, economic, environmental and ethical battlefield. Matters seemed destined for an ugly finish. At just about that time, though, the market asserted itself in the debate.

The Market Speaks

Bowing to overwhelming public opinion many food industry giants — McDonald’s, Burger King, Krogers, Johnstown Sausages, ConAgra, Smithfield Foods, and leading Canadian retailers — began notifying their pork suppliers that they wanted sow gestation crates phased out. The market proved swifter, more powerful and more effective than any political resolution

As the market reality was emerging, HSUS abandoned any consideration of a ballot initiative in Nebraska, or elsewhere. The issue of sow gestation crates was becoming moot.

trailTrying to turn a negative into a positive, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) began to talk with HSUS about ways to collaborate, to look for a trail forward, and to develop new, profitable, consumer-driven markets for livestock producers, rather than pursuing various statewide ballot issues to regulate livestock production.

“Statewide ballot campaigns polarize the situation,” explained John K. Hansen, President of  NeFU. “The campaigns are designed to get a visceral reaction. When that happens, and people on both sides are getting hit in the gut, then folks are not open to changing their positions.”

Hansen has held the elected office of President since 1989. Although he encountered  resistance from fellow Union members in state and around the country, he stuck his neck out and agreed to sit down with HSUS and talk. After exploring the possibilities, together in a joint venture they created the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS.

In a phone interview, Hansen explained: “In other states HSUS was getting into bruising battles with groups representing ag producers. I called the Farmers Union presidents in all of the states that had dealt with ballot issues on livestock, and I talked with them about this. They told me it had been a very painful process for them and their states. The livestock debates were extremely polarizing and creating long-term damage in the industries that produce the various meats most Americans eat.

“The battles were deeply destructive for everyone, especially livestock producers, and that’s not good. So that’s when Nebraska Farmer’s Union agreed to talk with the Humane Society to see if we could move things forward.”

Confab at the Cornhusker

Regarding livestock animal-welfare issues as crucial and Nebraska as pivotal, the President and CEO of HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, returned to the state a second time early this summer to represent his 11-million member organization, and to participate in a second public forum concerning HSUS’s joint venture with the Farmers Union — the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS.

chPacelle visited the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel in the capital city of Lincoln, the night of June 27, 2013 to help articulate the ideas behind the initiative.

As noted by the Lincoln Journal-Star, when Pacelle made a public appearance in Lincoln three years ago “the mood was tense…” and the proceedings were contentious. This time, knowing the vehement opposition that had characterized Pacelle’s visit to Nebraska in 2010 a contingent of security guards was posted at the door. They warily inspected everyone approaching the conference room.

This time there was no opposition. Opponents chose, at least publically, to ignore the Nebraska Agriculture Council. Thus, the forum was quiet, orderly, sparsely attended.

With 6,200 farm families as members, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) is the largest family farm and ranch group in the state. The union was formed 100 years ago in 1913, when Nebraska farmers perceived that independently they were consistently at a disadvantage. They banded together to stand up against monopolies that controlled the railroads, agricultural processing, farm supplies, and large grocery businesses. Over the last century the Farmers Union helped found 436 farm cooperatives across Nebraska.

At the Cornhusker forum, after farmers and union members spoke, HSUS’s Pacelle took a turn at the podium. “The history of this country is an expanding sphere of moral consideration,” he declared. “That sphere is now expanding to include the animals who are part of our lives, and who so many of us depend upon for food.”

“We are here to celebrate forward-thinking farmers who make animal welfare a priority and to appeal to the increasing share of consumers concerned about the values of humane treatment and sustainability,” he said.

The Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS is the first of it’s kind in any state, but is a model that will be replicated elsewhere.

A Good Business Partnership

A Nebraska native, Farmers Union President John Hansen told the forum he wants to create opportunities for people to return to animal agriculture, and for family farmers to make a living. He said he wants to see farmers moving product through supply chains.

NeFU.logo“Instead of continuing a knock-down, drag-out fight, we have to find a way to move forward,” Hansen said. “We have to find a way to reward people in the market for improving their standards of livestock care. We want to create new opportunities for new producers. We want to do value-added to create a premium product that will reward farmers and ranchers in the market for the ethical treatment of their animals.”

“This is a good business partnership.” Hansen said. “American agriculture can produce quality products with high standards of livestock care, and then be rewarded in the marketplace. The key to this is being open and transparent. We believe the market will reward us for doing the right thing in the right way.”

“Before this approach came forward,” Hansen said, “we were basically in a shin-kicking contest, and those contests were tending to go in favor of the pet owners, who are in the majority. Two-thirds of Americans own pets – and that majority tends to apply their own pet ethics and pet standards to livestock.

“That’s where the trouble starts. The two – pets and livestock – are related but different. In these conflicts ag producers are going to lose most of time because they are outnumbered by consumers, and that’s not good. We need them to live and they need us to make a living.”

“It’s pretty clear what local consumers want,” Hansen said. “They want meat from animals that are free of growth hormones and non-essential antibiotics. They want animals that have been properly and respectfully cared for, and allowed to express their basic animal nature.”

Building a More Humane Economy

When he took his turn speaking at the Cornhusker forum, Kevin Fulton said “animal welfare” outranks “organic” and “local” as an issue of concern for consumers. Fulton is a founder of the new council, and also the operator of Fulton Farms in Litchfield, Nebraska, a 2,800-acre diverse, multispecies livestock grazing operation for grass-fed beef, lamb, and pastured poultry.

“Farmers and ranchers should be at the forefront of the animal welfare issue, Fulton said. “Animals are not production units, but living creatures.”

Fulton cited a 2011 poll by the University of Nebraska. The poll shows that most rural Nebraskans (69%) agree that animal welfare means more than providing adequate food, water and shelter; but also includes adequate exercise, space and social activities for the animals.

As Fulton interprets the results, an overwhelming majority of people – these are rural Nebraska people, not seaboard city dwellers – are of the opinion that animals should be in an environment where they can express their natural behaviors.

“If they have legs they should at least be able to walk and turn around,” he said, “and if they have wings they should be able to flap them.”

Farm to Fitness

One component of the NAC marketing effort is a variation on the by now well-developed array of “farm-to” models. The US and farm2fitlogoCanada already have many farm-to-school, farm-to-church, farm-to-hospital, farm-to-office, programs, and more. As of late 2012, Farm to Fitness adds to the array of possibilities by using gyms as a focal point for connecting health-minded consumers with local producers of nutritious, humanely-raised meat, poultry and other foods to support their fitness goals.

According to Ben Gotschall, who hails from a cattle ranch in Nebraska’s Sand Hills and is Market Development Coordinator for the Nebraska Farmer’s Union: “The idea is for gyms to promote local livestock to their members, and to provide a distribution point for humanely raised and cooperatively purchased food orders.”

“I think this partnership is progress in the right direction,” Gotschall said. “Legislation can only get you so far. If you try to legislate problems away you run into other problems. The arguments we were having were not really getting anyone anywhere. The fight was demonizing producers and villainizing HSUS in the eyes of the agricultural community, and not really changing the way animals are treated in industrial systems.

“Taking a market approach is more constructive. That’s the nature of the problem anyway, because the marketplace dictates the system. Now with the new technologies, the market has the potential to take livestock care in a different direction, to make it better for animals, producers and consumers.”

“There is consumer demand, for sure, but that’s not a market,” Gotschall said. “You need a market system with production, processing, distribution, and so forth. That’s all been destroyed in the last 30 to 40 years. There is no way to go back to how it was. But that’s OK. It’s a different time and a different world.”

“We need to create a better world. Small-scale and mid-size farmers and ranchers now have the Internet, smartphones, and other information tools. The whole concept of knowing your farmer and where your food comes from is a lot more nuanced. It’s not the same as a first-person visit to the farm and farmers, but it is a connection and it works. We have many exciting new technologies.” Those technologies make it simpler for people in a supply chain to communicate and do business.”

Local, sustainable, value-added producers have the facts on their side, Gotschall asserted. “The research shows their product is healthier for people,” he said. To support his claim, he emailed me an Excel spreadsheet listing 58 relevant studies, including this sample.

Moral Evolution

Nebraska’s Governor proffered some incendiary rhetoric when he identified the matters of livestock and meat as a core issue, and then condemned the Humane Society as attempting to destroy the American way of life. Yet the “American way” the Governor so ferociously attempted to defend has, alas, long ago been generally overwhelmed.

Farmer’s Union President John Hansen laid out the familiar, grim facts: “Because of vertical integration and consolidation, in the years since 1980 we have lost 91% of independent hog producers, 80% of all dairy producers, and 40% of all beef producers. That is a massive shift. It shoved a lot of farm people out the door. They didn’t want to go. They were pushed out. No wonder we now are down to just 1% of the population farming today.”

“No animal welfare group drove these farm families out of business. It was, rather, a market dominated by vertically integrated multinational food corporations with mass industrial approaches, and little if any transparency about what they are actually doing.”

The population and character of Nebraska — and many other places in rural America — began altering markedly in the shadow of the relentlessly efficient advance of industrial models of food production and livestock management.

Even before the Governor’s damning words about HSUS ceased reverberating, his premise about the “American way of life” was further assaulted. Shuanghui International, a colossal Chinese conglomerate, surged forward in 2013 in an effort to purchase Smithfield, the world’s largest hog producer and pork packer. With three large ham and sausage plants in Nebraska, Smithfield is a major-league player.

Meanwhile, JBS Swift & Company, which also has a substantial presence in Nebraska, has for years been a wholly owned subsidiary of another multinational, a corporation based in Brazil.

Neither of these foreign entities – or the other multinational corporations behind industrial feedlots and confinement operations across America – necessarily match the down-home, patriotic profile conjured by the Governor’s volley. They are, for better or for worse, global institutions in an era of global commerce and communication. Multinational corporations, with their pluses and minuses, are but the latest permutation of the very forces that have so profoundly impacted, and continue to impact Nebraska and American farm families.

Governor Heinemann’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

the-thinker-224x300Through a sophisticated focus on efficiency and profit, large operations tend to spawn coldly rational mechanistic systems and dynamics that are well suited to machines, but not — as HSUS sees it — to living beings such as cows, pigs, lambs, chickens and turkeys. Here lies an enormous philosophical divide.

“What we are seeing is a major consumer reaction that was predicted back in the 1960s,” Hansen explained in our phone interview. “It was known even back then that when the corporations took over the farms, as has happened, that then the system would become less competitive and more homogenous. All of this stuff, it was known. They are reaping the harvest of what they sowed.”

“As I see it all of the things the Humane Society has been responding to are directly tied into the vertically integrated, industrialized corporate agriculture,” Hansen said. “It all comes out of this. The corporate takeover of livestock production has resulted in these conditions.

“The reason HSUS has influence in the debate,” Hansen said, “is because they are giving voice to legitimate consumer concerns. What do consumers want? You have to listen to that and respond. How do we create a value-added market that responds to this desire and expands the possibilities? The answers to those questions are the way forward.”

Leading a ‘Hungry Army’ along a Market Trail

It appears in the aftermath of the rhetorical battles and tectonic market shifts that have taken place around animal welfare, the troops that rose up in response to the Nebraska Governor’s call to arms included not just legislators wielding meat cleavers on the public’s right to know, but also consumers wielding forks, knives and authentic marketplace clout.

As the Lincoln Journal Star put it in an editorial, the “hungry army” that has been aroused is a growing network of consumers who want meat that is more humanely raised, that does not pollute the environment, that is healthy, and that is free of synthetic hormones, and chemicals.

humane,logoNext that “hungry army” may march on growth hormones, or excessive antibiotics, or any number of industrial practices that hold the stage as issues of common concern. Most citizens feel that the basic right of knowledge and choice is theirs and should remain theirs, an essential element of the American and Nebraskan democratic tradition.

The agriculture industry group We Support Agriculture apparently remains distrustful of HSUS. They did not respond to a request for comment. According to press releases on their website, they remain convinced that  animal welfare groups intend ultimately to terminate all livestock husbandry, and to convert everyone to vegetarianism.

In talking with members of the Nebraska Agriculture Council, I heard no one speak about eliminating animal agriculture. They spoke rather about creating more opportunities for small and mid-size farmers. I heard them speak, also, about their cooperative effort to pioneer a way forward with healthy, local humane husbandry using a robust and sophisticated network of 21st century technologies to help blaze the trail.

Jocelyn Nickerson, HSUS state director for Nebraska, had this to say: “This is all about protecting family farms, and that extends well beyond Nebraska. Nebraska is a tough state, but we’ve made strides in relationship building, in getting our message out about protecting family farms, and in improving conditions for animals on the farms. That’s a good thing, no two ways about it.

“Our ultimate goal is not to stop livestock production, but to promote humanely and sustainably raised products. We’re doing it because it’s important, because it’s the right thing to do, and because that’s what consumers are demanding.”

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Author’s Note: Along with several producer coops, Open Harvest consumer coop grocery in Lincoln is a partner in the newly formed Nebraska Agriculture Council. I serve on the Board for Open Harvest, which does business with over 110 Nebraska farms. I’m also on the Advisory Board for Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska, and a member of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.


Organic Entanglements: Costly Case with a Big Chill

January 17, 2013

*entanglementsAt a court hearing in Lincoln, Nebraska this week, a judge granted a continuance, again pushing back the date for resolving a controversial legal matter that is having an ongoing chilling impact upon US organic inspectors. The first case of its kind, it involves an organic farm inspector and a farm claiming to be organic.

The plaintiff claims the organic inspector conspired with the US government and the inspection company to prevent his business from having a valued organic certification.

Plaintiff farmer Paul A. Rosberg is suing organic inspector Evrett Lunquist (and International Certification Services, Inc.) for $7.6 million. Judge Paul D. Merritt of Lancaster County Court set March 20, 2013 as the date for a hearing on summary judgment of this entangled matter. A summary judgment could end the case without a full trial.

Judge Merritt had no choice but to grant the continuance and postpone. The plaintiff will be on trial in a criminal case scheduled to start January 28, and would likely be unable to appear in Merritt’s court on January 29 for the hearing that had been scheduled for that date. Rosberg’s criminal case involves federal grand jury indictments on six counts stemming from his alleged sale of non-inspected meat to the Omaha Public Schools.

Defendant Lunquist and attorney have filed motions requesting summary judgment dating back to May, 2012 and again in October.  But a steady flow of motions filed by Rosberg has kept the matter unsettled, and the meter running on Lunquist’s attorney. As the case drags on into its second year – and the severe drought gripping The Great Plains intensifies — Lunquist’s legal bills continue to mount. The latest entanglements in the case have driven the defense costs over $30,000.

My original story on this case, with background details, can be found here.

At the hearing in Lancaster County Court on January 15, the judge read off a numbingly long list of motions in the case, including Rosberg’s latest motions asking for sanctions on the defendant’s attorney, and for further delay in resolving his case against the inspector.

Rosberg, who represents himself pro se, has been involved in dozens of lawsuits over the past 28 years.  He said his impending federal case in Omaha will involve 70 witnesses. If the federal judge allows that many witnesses, that criminal case could drag on for weeks and thus Rosberg would be unavailable to press his latest lawsuits.

This $7.6 million lawsuit in Nebraska is sending a piercing legal chill through the nation’s network of organic inspectors. The case calls into question the willingness of the USDA and its National Organic Program (NOP) to stand behind inspectors.  After inspector Lunquist acted independently and notified NOP of his concerns, the NOP investigated and found that Rosberg’s operation indeed failed to qualify for organic certification. Lunquist’s complaint should have been kept confidential under NOP policy. But they inadvertently released his identity, leading directly to this lawsuit.

Although the NOP has provided a Declaration corroborating the accuracy of Lunquist’s original complaint, they have declined to help with Lunquist’s ballooning legal costs or to issue a public apology.

Judge Merritt granted plaintiff Rosberg a continuance until March 20, but said this was the last delay. In the interim, he allowed Rosberg to compel inspector Lunquist to provide further documentation, an action that will inevitably drive the defense legal bill even higher.

Lunquist, himself a Biodynamic CSA farmer with his wife and family at Common Good Farm, has established a website to keep people informed and to try and raise money to cover the cost of his legal defense

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AUTHOR’S DISCLOSURE: I serve on the board of Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska. Common Good Farm is among 110+ local vendors that do business with our co-op. The coop has been helping to raise funds to cover the cost of Lunquist’s defense.


Organic Justice: An Update for the Common Good

November 25, 2012

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., has announced that on January 10, 2013 it will hear the appeal in a landmark legal case of critical importance to all who eat organic food: Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) et al v. Monsanto.

This case is also, notably, of direct relevance to Evrett Lunquist, who was the subject of my November 14 report – America’s Organic Inspectors Chilled by Libel Case. In addition to that precedent-seting libel case, Lunquist and wife Ruth Chantry of Common Good Farm in Raymond, Nebraska are also among the coalition of organic farms and organizations which have banded together to press the class-action lawsuit against Monsanto.

The Organic Seed Grower’s lawsuit challenges the validity of Monsanto’s transgenic seed patents, and seeks preemptive court protection for farmers when Monsanto’s genetically engineered seed trespasses onto their farms and contaminates their natural, organic crops.

The plaintiff community of organic farmers asserts that this case is not just an academic dispute of patent law. Rather it is a critical issue affecting family farmers across the USA, with implications of global significance.

With the defeat of the GMO labeling proposition in California earlier this month, the OSGATA suit against Monsanto takes center stage in the national debate about genetically engineered food.

While the GMO invasion matter is being contested in court, this November the final report of the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture threw another hatchet at the roots of organic farming and food. The committee formally recommended that organic farmers be obliged to pay money to self-insure themselves against unwanted GMO contamination. The National Organic Coalition immediately issued a statement of opposition to this measure.

If the USDA implements such a requirement, it would be tantamount to  a mob “protection plan” — forcing farmers to pay protection money to insure that they are not ruined financially by the full-scale onslaught of the GMO Industrial Complex, Inc.

No amount of insurance, however, will protect the land, the farmers themselves, or the food they produce, from GMO contamination.

Rather than protecting clean land and farms, this recommended policy would place full cost and full responsibility for contamination not on the perpetrators, but instead on the farmers whose land and crops have been transgressed. It would, in effect, turn the common-sense understanding of justice on its head. In no way would such a policy serve the common good.


Organic Inspectors Chilled by Libel Case

November 14, 2012

Click here for an update – November 25 ,2012

“Organic integrity relies on the ability of inspectors to register complaints without fear of reprisal. A ‘chilling effect’ from the threat of disclosure and retaliation could make it much less likely that individuals will report to the NOP suspected fraud, misconduct, or other actions that undermine organic integrity.”   — Margaret Scoles, International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).

A $7.6 million lawsuit against Evrett Lunquist, an organic certification inspector, and International Certification Services (ICS), is sending a penetrating legal chill through the nation’s network of individuals tasked with ensuring that the organic label has a trusted meaning.

The case, the first known brought against an organic inspector by a farmer, calls into question the willingness of the USDA and its National Organic Program (NOP) to stand behind inspectors.

For the last 11 years, Lunquist, 42, has earned extra income working part time as an inspector of farms seeking USDA organic certification. He was acting on his own when, in 2008, he notified the NOP of suspicions about Paul Rosberg’s farm, near Wausau, Nebraska. Lunquist says he felt honor bound by the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) Code of Ethics to report suspected fraud.

The NOP investigated independently, finding Rosberg’s operation indeed failed to qualify for organic certification. Lunquist’s complaint should have been kept confidential under NOP policy. But his identity was inadvertently released, leading directly to the lawsuit. “In my mind this is so simple,” Lunquist said. “I reported something I was concerned about. NOP looked at it and found everything to be true. My defense is to assert what is true and factual.”

Rosberg is representing himself, pro se, in the case. According to court records, the farmer has been involved in dozens of lawsuits in Nebraska the past 28 years. While pressing his suit against Lunquist, Rosberg and his wife have meantime been indicted by a federal grand jury on six counts of fraud for selling misbranded meat to Omaha Public Schools. They face fines and prison terms if convicted. That trial was set for November 26, but has been re-scheduled for federal court in Omaha on January 28, 2013 — just one day before the next scheduled hearing in the Rosberg-Lunquist libel case in Lancaster County Court (January 29).

The Lancaster County Court, however, granted Rosberg’s motion to amend his complaint against Lunquist, adding ICS and also “John and Jane Does 1-100″ as defendants, alleging that they conspired together to deny him certification. The next hearing date in the case is January 29, 2013.

As Lunquist’s case drags on, his legal bills continue to mount—to over $27,500, as of October 2012.

Since the NOP violated their own confidentiality policy by releasing his name, Lunquist, with the support of the IOIA, asked the NOP to make things right. The NOP declined to help with legal costs or to issue a public apology, and was slow to provide documents needed for his defense, thereby driving up legal expenses. However, the NOP ultimately provided a Declaration corroborating Lunquist’s complaint. The agency stated it is taking precautions to ensure this never happens again.

Lunquist said his motivation for filing a complaint was to preserve organic integrity. “If people run roughshod over it,” he said, “then organic will have no meaning. In my mind I was doing the right thing by submitting information. This turn of events is stupefying.”

For more information, or to make a donation, visit lunquistlegalfund.org  Of note: Evrett Lunquist, his wife Ruth Chantry, and Common Good Farm are featured in a new documentary film — Higher Ground — being produced by Open Harvest natural foods coop.

Evrett Lunquist at work in the field. With his wife, Ruth Chantry, and their children, Lunquist owns and operates Common Good Farm. They produce free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, pork, herbs, and vegetables. It is one of two Demeter-certified Biodynamic farms in Nebraska. Photo by Michael Thurber.

AUTHOR’S DISCLOSURE: I serve on the board of Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska. Common Good Farm is among 110+ local vendors that do business with the co-op.  This story also appears in The Cultivator, newsletter of The Cornucopia Institute.


Lakota Draw a Line on the Land: Try to Block Keystone Pipeline Trucks

March 6, 2012

A series of events breaking along the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota may well develop into a major news story with resonant consequences for the law, for the environment, for treaty rights, and for the land.

Lakota people attempt to block trucks carrying equipment for the Keystone XL Pipeline tar sands project. Photo by Carlin Red Blanket, Sr.

As of Monday, March 5, 2012 the Lakota Oyate* have taken a stand on their Reservation border, drawing a line in an attempt to block the passage of trucks carrying equipment for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

KILI Radio 90.1 on the reservation has broadcast an Action Alert, calling all Lakota men “to come stand in defense of their treaty-bound reservation land.”

According to KILI, the Pipeline trucks are refusing to turn around claiming they have corporate rights that supercede any other laws

The vast earth-changing Keystone XL pipeline project — ripping up the tar sands of the Northlands and then pumping the toxic goo thousands of miles over fertile but fragile land to the Gulf of Mexico — was supposed to be on hold. But TransCanada, the foreign-owned corporation, continues aggressively to shove, spurt and snake parts of the pipeline forward.

This developing confrontation between Native peoples — who from their traditions understand that they bear responsibilities as keepers of the earth — and the huge multinational corporate XL Pipeline complex, could become an international focal point.

Updates from the scene as of Tuesday report that the trucks are being allowed to pass, and that Lakota people were arrested late Monday as they attempted to halt the trucks from entering their sovereign territory.

Meanwhile, troubles on the South edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation (the border between South Dakota and Nebraska) came into a strange, fuzzy focus in today’s edition of The New York Times. The Times published a disturbing story about the alcohol-induced heartache and misery anchored in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a notorious town squatting on the south border of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

* Notes on Oyate from Wikipedia: In January 2008, the Lakota Freedom Delegation split into two groups. One group was led by Canupa Gluha Mani (Duane Martin Sr.). He is a leader of Cante Tenza, the traditional Strongheart Warrior Society, that has included leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. This group is called Lakota Oyate. The other group is called the “Republic of Lakotah” and is led by Russell Means. In December 2008, Lakota Oyate received the support and standing of the traditional treaty council of the Oglala Tiospayes.


Left Behind: Unraptured by the Transgenic Tsunami

January 24, 2012

When Stewart Brand spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in mid-January, he broadcast a vision of a Genetically Modified (GM) future toward which he felt we should all be charging with bright-eyed enthusiasm. “Get out there where it’s getting weird,” he exhorted, “and get weird with it.”

As I sat and listened to Brand talk of the future, I was carried in reverie not forward but backward to 1964. That’s the year my mom took my sister, my brothers and me to the New York City World’s Fair where we made a pilgrimage through the most celebrated exhibit of all, Futurama. Sponsored by another GM (General Motors), the exhibit offered a glimpse into what life would be like in the future — as GM engineers wanted to conceive of it. Of course, the future materialized its own way, not in accordance with immaculately engineered visions.

Likewise, Stewart Brand’s exhilarating vision of a corporately-owned, genetically-modified World of Tomorrow — a world subsisting on a diet of what he calls ‘Green Ag BioTech’ — seems to me unlikely and ill advised.

Stewart Brand

Founder of the famously countercultural Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968, Brand now styles himself as an “ecopragmatist.” He said that three global dynamics – climate change, urbanization and biotechnology – are causing people like himself to reverse long-held opinions and to embrace nuclear power and genetically modified food.

Brand is vivid and likeable on the stage, and his talk was expansive and entertaining. Because he is such a prominent convert to biotech, his philosophical reincarnation as an ecopragmatist advocate for nuclear power and GMO food might well have a measure of influence. But not with me.

His talk left me unconvinced and unraptured by the whole vast global laboratory experiment on nature and our food that is currently being executed with slam-bam systemic speed. I just don’t hear the call of the land as a plea for more industrially created, corporately owned genes and the petrochemicals necessary to sustain them. What I hear instead is a full-throated call for natural respect. Same as it ever was.

Special Pleading

Brand told the story of how on his way to Nebraska to speak he had flown over the Sierras. While in the air he saw that there was no snow pack at all on the mountains this year. This kind of ominous drought, he said, has not occurred since the 1880s. Climate change is catastrophically real, he then affirmed, saying it was a central motivating force for the work he does in the world.

In the context of our unfolding climate calamity, Brand asked rhetorically, “What is moral and ethical?” He answered his own question in the same breath, saying that nuclear power, genetically modified plants and animals, and geo-engineering are all essential ways to the future, and that we — corporations, universities, governments and amateurs — ought to go full steam ahead into a more fully nuclear-powered, genetically modified world.

Brand said that at this point in history environmentalists have only hand wringing to contribute to the future. He derided “enviros,” saying they are people caught up in a web of suspicions and superstitions. They are just “sad reactionaries,” he lamented.

A man of signal accomplishments, Brand at one point shifted and began declaiming. Aflame with the scripture of material technology, he allowed his rap to devolve and issued a disheartening damnation of unbelievers. In the years to come, Brand warned from his pulpit on stage, the leading edge of biotech will not be here in America but rather far afield in China, Africa and the Third World. Those places lack opposition, and have minimal regulation. In places like America where there is opposition to these thrusts, he warned, people such as organic and sustainable farmers and their supporters will be “left behind.” Organic farming will be more expensive and will yield food with less nutritional value than patented transgenic crops. Organics will become irrelevant.

Brand tossed off several ad hominem slams to imply that opposition to a GM future arises not from authentic, evidence- and ethics-based concerns, but rather from irrational fear. In that sense his presentation was a special pleading: a form of argumentation where a person excludes facts or details that would upend the case they are attempting to make. Enraptured with his subject, Brand stuck to sweeping generalizations, and neither acknowledged nor refuted the substantial body of legitimate concerns about GM corporate industrial farms and food. This struck me as a disservice to the debate.

Likewise, Brand said nothing about the ramifications of corporate ownership and monopoly over various life forms. He said nothing about informed choice or human free will, absolutely massive aspects of the GM miasma. He said nothing about the mounting studies and literature reviews documenting concern about the impact of GMOs on human health and the natural world over time. He said nothing of the Precautionary Principle. And he said not a word about the suicides in India of hundreds of thousands of farmers — the largest wave of suicides in human history — in consequence of the debt and suffering incurred by becoming involved with corporate biotech.

These matters – scientific concerns about GMOs, the free will of human beings, and a saddening, stupefying wave of suicides — must be addressed in any discussion of corporate industrial agriculture and GM seeds and food. To ignore them, or to gloss them over, creates a dangerous distortion of reality.

Sans Spectrum

At one point Brand showed a PowerPoint slide with a double-headed arrow to illustrate the spectrum of opinion on climate change: from total denial to full acceptance. But he made no allowance for a justifiable spectrum of opinion on GM food. In his view, at least as I heard him express it, there are only two stances: sanguine acceptance of corporate genetic manipulation of the food chain, or pitiful irrational fear of the future.

There are millions of people who, for sound ethical and scientific reasons, oppose GM farms and food. And there is a mounting library of research that should give any thoughtful person pause.

The health consequences of eating genetically modified organisms are still largely unknown. GMOs just have not been proven to be safe over the long term. Increasingly, studies are suggesting that grave health problems — for plants, animals and humans — may well be caused by GMOs. We’re all still guinea pigs. Make no mistake: the jury is still out.

Consider. Nearly 50 countries — including Brazil, China, South Korea and the European Union—already ban many genetically engineered foods altogether. They also generally require labeling of GMO products so their people will know what they are eating.

As expressed by UC Berkeley professor of microbial ecology, Ignacio Chapela, “…the fundamental truth stands that over the decades no real benefit has offset the proven harm caused by GMOs.”

Most Americans, however, are every day ingesting plate loads of lab-created DNA while having absolutely no idea about what they are doing, and no choice in the matter. There are no labels. Our free will has been rendered inconsequential, even though surveys show overwhelmingly (93%) that Americans do want labels. More than half a million people have already signed a petition to the FDA asking for the basic information and protection of labels.

For these and other reasons I have written about, I am altogether at peace with the idea of being left behind by the corporate GM onslaught. I remain unraptured. I’ll take my stand for the future on clean, organic land and food. Same as it ever was.

A Titanic Transgenic Courtroom Clash

The debate about GM food will amp up considerably this year, starting on January 31. That’s the day that the courts will hold a preliminary hearing on the lawsuit the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), and others have brought against Monsanto. The hearing will determine whether this landmark case goes forward.

Along with 83 family farmers and organic ag groups — a group totaling over 300,000 members — OSGTA is challenging Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seed.  The plaintiffs are carrying a banner in a crucial courtroom stance for everyone concerned about GM transgenic food.

The 300,000 member plaintiff group will set their case out in opening remarks at the hearing: “Society stands on the precipice of forever being bound to transgenic agriculture and transgenic food. Coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed.”

The Plaintiffs say they are seeking relief from the court because organic, biodynamic, and other farmers need legal protection against contamination by Monsanto’s transgenic crops. They will present evidence to show transgenic food does not serve the public interest, nutritionally, environmentally, agronomically, or genetically.

This case is of resounding significance not just for farmers but also for consumers. There are far-reaching potential health consequences of transgenic food, particularly for future generations of plants, animals, and people. All this and more will arise for courtroom debate.

Futurama – GM at the 1964 World’s Fair


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