The Dee Creek Farm raw milk saga

This moving story of big government vs small farm is excerpted from a post on Stone Soup titled “My Sister’s Story: How Uncle Sam Controls Your Choices” by Katrina Stonoff:

The Pucketts of Dee Creek Farm

Mike and Anita Puckett of Dee Creek Farm. (via Stone Soup)

Sept 8, 2008: “I hardly know where to start. For almost three years, I have kept quiet about this, at first out of respect for families whose children were sick, and then on advice of my sister’s attorney. But all legal action ended Friday, and now I can speak. I’ll try to tell the short version of how we ended up at the federal courthouse Friday. This is all public record now — you can even download the letters of support friends and family wrote — so I feel I can speak fairly freely. Finally!

Background

My sister and her husband (Mike and Anita Puckett) ownDee Creek Farm, which is about an hour south of here, and they run it with their daughter Summer Steenbarger. They sell a variety of organically grown products ranging from pastured chickens and eggs to artisan cheese and produce. All their food is exquisite — tastes amazing and is created without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or drugs.

They never planned to operate a raw milk dairy, but after they bought a milk cow for their family’s use, people began clamoring for them to sell milk. Apparently there are some health benefits to drinking raw milk (neither pasteurized nor homogenized): people who are lactose intolerant can often drink raw milk (99 percent of the time, according to some raw milk proponents), and there’s also evidence it helps people who suffer from other ailments like asthma.* In Washington, it’s illegal to sell raw milk without becoming a licensed dairy, and licensing requirements are onerous — to the point of being nearly impossible for a small, family farm with a few cows (in Oregon, there were no dairies licensed to sell raw milk for human consumption at all, though I heard through the grapevine that someone was licensed very recently). However, it IS legal, in both states, to drink raw milk from a cow you own, as the Pucketts were doing.

The people begging them to provide milk told them about cow-sharing — where two or more families buy a cow together and share the costs and milk. In cases where families don’t have the facilities to house a cow or small herd, they sometimes pay a farmer to house and care for their cow(s). The Pucketts looked into the business, talked to an attorney, collected a number of sample cow-share agreements, and finally, reluctantly agreed. All of their co-owners signed a multiple-page contract vetted by an attorney (which said, among other things, that they understood the potential risks of raw milk, including E. coli, that in the case of an unfortunate event, they would not pursue legal action, and that in fact, they would share the costs and consequences of fighting any legal action). No one was allowed to sign up for a cow-share without visiting the farm and seeing the facility, and owners came to the farm to pick up their milk. When even very close friends tried to purchase milk from the farm, the Pucketts told them no, it wasn’t legal for them to sell milk.

Things went really well at first. The cow-share participants reported, in glowing terms, how much healthier their family members were, and indeed, Spark and Summer (who have been diagnosed, respectively, with an autoimmune disease and Crohn’s disease) both showed improved health. In Jul 2005, the Portland Tribune ran a very positive story about cow-sharing and the raw milk trend, a story that featured Dee Creek Farm and even photos of their cows.

The Incident

Then disaster hit. In December 2005, one of the cow-owners called to say they would not be picking up their milk that day because one of their children was in the hospital, sick from E. coli. The Pucketts knewE. coli is sometimes connected to raw milk (though also to spinach,lettucealfalfa sproutsfruit juice, and hamburger; apparently it can also be connected with tree nuts), so they went into immediate action. They called all the cow-owners, explained the situation, described the symptoms to look for, encouraged them to go straight to the hospital if they displayed any symptoms, and told them NOT to drink their milk.

The next few weeks were horrible, as several of the cow-owners and their children sickened. In the end, five people were hospitalized, and two children remained in the hospital for about a month, due tohemolytic-uremic syndrome (kidney failure). During this time, the Pucketts were tireless in their support, gathering donations for the families, organizing meals, babysitting, and prayer chains, etc. They were heartbroken to watch their friends suffer and felt terrible that the bacteria may have come from their farm. Eventually, everyone fully recovered.

Newspapers reported 18 cases, but the number is a bit disingenuous. In fact, only seven or eight people (depending who you talk to) were actually diagnosed with E. coli, and eight of those 18 actually testednegative. But anyone who drank milk from Dee Creek farm and who had diarrhea during a two-week period was counted among the epidemic, despite the fact that an extremely virulent stomach flu was flying through the community during the same period. Every single person in my family had diarrhea during that period, and we didn’t drink the milk. And most of the people I know had it as well, during the same period.

The Government’s Response

The government began its campaign of harassment immediatly. They embargoed the farm’s cows, telling the Pucketts it would be for only a week or two — the cows were embargoed for nearly two years, during which time the Pucketts had to continue to feed, house, milk, and care for them without any financial gain at all (they fed the milk to pigs). In the end, they were finally allowed to slaughter the expensive, purebred dairy cows for beef, but the financial loss wasenormous. A raw milk dairy north of here had an E. coli event during the time Puckett’s cows were embargoed, and the government never embargoed their cows at all (and indeed, helped them get back on their feet).

Pucketts were assured, over and over, that they would be notified first if any new information was uncovered, but routinely they learned all their news from reporters calling the house to get a statement. Even when the state finally decided the E. coli had definitely come from Dee Creek Farm, the Pucketts learned it from the media.

Speaking of which, the Pucketts tested samples of their milk many, many times, and an independent lab never found a trace of E. coli, using the same tests the State used. In fact, the Pucketts tested —twice! — the exact same sample the state had, using the exact samemethods — and found no bacteria. And the independent lab had their results back to the Pucketts within a handful of days, but the State lab results didn’t come in for a month — coincidentally arriving just in time to be announced the day before legislation was introduced to make cow-sharing without a dairy license illegal (the legislation has since passed).

The farm was sent a cease-and-desist order, which the media has reported they ignored despite the fact that the Pucketts stopped distributing milk the moment they learned someone was ill — five days before the letter was delivered.

They were also terrorized by the media. Vans parked for days at the end of the driveway, blocking their access. Spotlights were shined on their house all night long. Helicopters routinely flew overhead.

About two weeks into the illnesses, the Clark County Health Department notified the press that the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) had confirmed E. coli in Dee Creek Farm milk. An employee of WSDA contacted both Spark and her daughter to apologize, stating that no specific pathogens had been found. (An account of that first month can be read here.) But a week or so later (remember the timing? Just as legislation to prohibit cow-sharing was introduced), the press reported it again, and this time, WSDA concurred.

Government and Court Actions

WSDA officials implied that if Dee Creek Farm would comply with regulations and become licensed, they would not be fined. Although department officials would not return the Puckett’s calls or help them learn what had to be done to become licensed, the Pucketts met with other dairy farmers and designed a dairy that met and surpassed code, and they were licensed to sell raw goat milk in May 2007. Regardless, they were fined $8,000 by the state, payable immediately. They were unable to pay immediately, and the state refused to set up a payment plan, so they borrowed money from friends and family to pay the fine.

In addition, they were threatened with lawsuits by two of the families whose children had been sick (though, ironically, by neither of the two whose children were hospitalized for a month). Remember that legal contract the families signed? The one where they took personal responsibility for the risk? The one where they promised not to sue, and even agreed to pay costs if a lawsuit did ensue? Washington State says parents don’t have the right to sign away their children’s right to sue (though apparently those same parents DO have the right to file a lawsuit “on behalf” of their children — think about that, and all its legal ramifications!).

The Pucketts did not have the money to fight a lawsuit, so they settled out of court. I’m sure the plaintiffs in that threatened lawsuit were very disappointed with the sum they got (10 percent of what they asked for), but it was more blood than that turnip had to spare.

The Pucketts spent more money they didn’t have (many tens of thousands more) building a dairy, upgrading the facility, and getting licensed.

As the two-year anniversary of The Incident approached, they were financially strapped: out of savings, credit destroyed, and many tens of thousands of dollars in debt both to commercial lenders and to family and friends. My brother-in-law had put off indefinitely his retirement (planned for 2007). But they appeared to have survived. The farm was thriving. They were licensed for a number of products: poultry, eggs, raw goat milk, etc., and selling CSA garden baskets.

Then the Feds came in and threatened felony criminal charges. It’s illegal to transport raw milk over state lines, and though nobody says the Pucketts did that, they were accused of providing milk to other people who did. Isn’t that like being charged with aiding and abetting a crime nobody is being charged with actually committing? And, oh, hey, sure enough! The plea agreement even uses the words “aiding and abetting,” yet nobody’s been accused of actually committing the crime itself.

They did not have the money to fight, and though they were both appointed a public defender, they were warned that if they lost, they could be responsible for all court costs, including  witnesses’ costs. Not to mention the tiny little detail of a potential three years in prison and $300,000 fine. Each. They could not take the risk, so they agreed to sign a plea bargain. They would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, and the prosecutor would recommend no incarceration and no fine, just a minimum probation period. The probation office defined “minimum” as one year and added a recommendation for a $250 fine and requested they be required to submit DNA to the national database (Why, pray tell?!!).

As I wrote Friday (my niece’s account is here), the judge refused to levy any additional punishment. She said it was “sufficient” that they had had to plead guilty to a crime. She said she saw no benefit to keeping them on probation. She let them go with a $25 assessment fee each that she was required to levy, and even gave them six months to pay that. But one of the 21 supporters in the courtroom insisted on paying the fee before the Pucketts left the building (No, it was not me. I was still digging in my purse for the money when someone else waved two twenties and a ten in my face).

I have to say: kudos to Judge Strombom. Recent events have made me question whether our judicial system stills works, but last Friday I saw clear and undeniable evidence that when the Judge is truly paying attention and has the courage to do what’s right, our legal system really does administer justice.

The War Against Raw Milk

Here’s my take. I think the Pucketts were harassed, for political reasons that have little to do with their mistake and a lot to do with the Dairy Council’s desire to retain control of all dairy products sold in the U.S. (and yes, I’m cynical, but I highly doubt The Dairy Council is acting from philanthropic motives).

As more and more people — sick and unable to get help from mainstream channels — are insisting on access to real, raw, local food, Corporate Agriculture seems determined to stop it, and they have the money and lobbying power to do it.

This is probably most obvious in the raw milk debate. Time Magazine alone has included two major articles this year about raw milk: “Raw Milk, Straight from the Cow” and “Got Raw Milk? Be Very Quiet.” Read that last one particularly — it’s a little frightening. The controversy has also been covered by HarpersNew York TimesNPRThe Washington PostUSA TodayCNN, and MSNBC, among countless others…”

Read the whole story here on Stone Soup.

And here’s an excerpt from Summer’s (their daughter) blog post titled “Where are the Cameras Now?”:

Sept. 2, 2008: “Today was a huge day for us at Dee Creek Farm (and for many small farmers!):

Some justice at last? Photo from Summers blog.

Some justice at last? Photo from Summer's post. Original caption: "Mom and dad outside the courthouse - reflecting on the moment.

Nearly 3 years after e. coli struck our farm, and after civil settlements, WSDA investigations and fines, the FDA has had it’s final word with the Puckett’s.  

My parents signed a plea agreement in June admitting guilt of knowingly allowing milk from their farm to cross state lines, and that they were milking in facilities not “up to par” with current licensed dairy sanitary regulations; issues from 2005.  Currently the farm has a licensed dairy.  They had neither the funds, nor the desire to oppose the United States Government (FDA) in any way, and so willingly agreed to the above, with the penalty of a strict liability misdemeanor charge, the first and only criminal offense for either of them.  This would mean one year of probation for both, as agreed by my parents’ and the FDA attorneys, with the possibility of fines.

We are humbled and honored to announce that today in the Tacoma Federal Courthouse, Honorable Judge Strombom denied the FDA’s prosecuting attorneys suggested punishment (as well as the Puckett’s attorneys), and instead sentenced no additional penalties.  No probation and no fines.  This was a miracle!  (They did, however, incur a small court fee, which supporters gathered and paid at the courthouse)

More than a dozen people came to the courthouse to support my parents, many left in tears by the Judge’s mercy.  None of us expected this outcome.  We feel blessed beyond measure!

This was the largest possible miracle we could have hoped for.  And though my parents now have misdemeanors under their belts, they also have peace.  For the first time in a long time, I think they just may sleep all night!  I think we’ve learned a good lesson about not “putting our treasures” here on Earth, but can now live moving forward, instead of living in the past quite so much.

We would not be here if it were not for the many wonderful customers, friends, and family, as well as assistance that we have received from so many places.  You are all incredible!  We have been praying every day since we first found out that one of our dear friends was sick with e. coli.  Though everything has seemed bleak since then, we feel blessed, and realize that season may have ended, a new one begun.

Your prayers and thoughts (and calls & letters!) have brought us through almost 3 years of fear, hoping for each day to be a good one – and at last we can move on, building a future with what we have.  We are blessed to have you all.  We are blessed to be alive.  And we have been truly blessed to have a merciful Judge….”

Once again, here’s that link to Summer’s post.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Dee Creek Farm raw milk saga

  1. Pingback: The Dee Creek Farm raw milk saga | Your Health..

  2. Pingback: The Dee Creek Farm raw milk saga | Asthma

  3. That is fabulous news. A miracle indeed. Shows what happens to darkness when you shine the light on it. It disappears.

  4. thebovine

    My original title for this story had the word “sad” in it. Later I took it out because the ending does in some way vindicate the Pucketts and I didn’t want to prejudice how people experienced the story for themselves.

    So Francois, I understand where the Nourisher is coming from. She want to “accentuate the positive”.

    Which is not to say that their persecution wasn’t an outrage. It’s really hard to know what to make of this story. I’m left with an impression of people standing up for what they believe is right, regardless of the consequences. I think they’ve achieved something of value for us all. I think they’ve managed to make “lemonade” out of some really bitter lemons.

  5. Sara

    poor family! i wish them well

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