The Alvin Schlangen jury trial in Minnesota — What we gained

by Susie Zahratka in collaboration with Kathryn Niflis Johnson

Canadian raw milk pioneer and advocate Michael Schmidt with Alvin Schlangen at one of the pretrial events in the US organized by the Raw Milk Freedom Riders. Photo courtesy of Michael Schmidt

Smiling faces, hugs, and children happily playing. Is this the scene of a family reunion, or a playgroup? No, this is the scene each day for four days outside the courtroom where friend, farmer and buying club manager, Alvin Schlangen, sits, listens and waits as a jury of six decides whether or not connecting families with nutrient-dense foods will land him in jail.

On Monday, September 17 the trial begins. The courtroom is packed as Judge Robert M. Small reviews court processes and procedures. Defense lawyer Nathan Hansen and prosecution lawyer Michele Doffing work out specifics to do with wording allowed to be presented to the jury.

The food labeling provision charge against Alvin is dropped and Alvin is offered a plea bargain that includes a reduced jail time as well as $200 in court fees if he pleads guilty to any one charge. Without hesitation, he responds, “No.”

As jury selection begins that day, there is a strong sense of positivity in the air. This trial, we know, is one that will make history. As the jurors are chosen many of us retire to the hallway just outside the courtroom to allow our children to play, call supporters with news, and share in some food.

By the end of the day, the jury is selected and the trial begins with the prosecution calling on the arresting officer and also James Roettger of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) who is involved in this case as well as that against Michael Hartmann. Both witnesses are expected testifiers and serve to structure the argument behind the case against Alvin.

In the evening, supporters, friends and members gather at a nearby park for a potluck. Many of us know each other from past events. We share stories about the day and compare notes regarding jury selection and the prosecution witnesses. As we leave the park that evening we feel confident that the goodness of the man and the honesty of his mission will prevail.

Tuesday is a big day for the prosecution. The MDA is called upon to educate the jury about the dangers of raw milk. The prosecution tries to paint Alvin as a money-loving business man intent on creating a comfortable cash flow for himself by selling expensive (and dangerous) food. In her Opening Statement, prosecutor Michelle Doffing stated, “This case is about a man. A man who chose his business over public safety.”

As Alvin sits there in his Farm to Consumer Legal Defense (FTCLDF) t-shirt and jeans, I have doubts that the jury buys the story. Even so, as two Freedom Farms Co-op members take the stand to establish the ways and means of the co-op, many of us wonder how their testimonies will stack up against those of the MDA .

Before we break for lunch, the judge remarks that he has never seen so many “unfidgity” children in his courtroom. One supporter couldn’t help but respond, “It’s the raw milk!” The judge replies, “I didn’t hear that.” But he does. He notices. The jury notices. We notice. Where else would one find a gathering of equal parts children to adults to support someone?

Most of the same faces gather day after day, sitting in the courtroom, convening in the hallway or playing on the grassy knoll outside. It is a clear indication that this is not the trial of someone who is in it for the prosperity or posterity. This is the trial of a man who knows the law and, recognizing its shortcomings, created a volunteer owned club that serves its members by establishing private contracts between people who hold in common the value of nourishing food.

The day ends with Nathan calling Alvin Schlangen himself to the stand. Alvin patiently sorts through countless pictures taken by the MDA during the searches of his delivery truck, his farm and the warehouse space where the food for the buying club was stored. He identifies those he can and rejects those he can’t. A number of times he is presented with pictures that show the sign on the side of his van as well as that on his rented warehouse space that reads, “Private”. At first I wonder about the purpose of these questions but as Nathan proceeds, I realize that  Alvin is having the chance to to explain his mission, the background of the co-op, it’s focus and procedures. The jury is finally getting a glimpse of the man we all know and love, not a greedy business owner unconcerned about the effects of his choices. The protection that he builds into the co-op for the farmers whose milk we drink makes certain that if anyone is to “go down” for this, it will be Alvin himself and not the Amish farmer just trying to support his family in a sustainable way.

Again that evening we gather to recap the day. As many supporters are unable to attend the trial, our end-of-the-day celebrations give the chance for people to connect with those in court and show their support for Alvin. Day two ends and we all go home, a little more tired than the day before but still hopeful.

Before we know it, it is day three, the last scheduled day of the trial. As Mr. Hansen concludes and the defense rests, Ms. Doffing questions Alvin, pointing out what she sees as inconsistencies from the co-op website: Alvin’s claims of selling organic eggs and yet not being Certified Organic, asking how prices charged for milk and eggs compare with those of the grocery store, the website showing a picture of chickens roaming in the grass vs in the empty cage that was found at the warehouse. Alvin attempts to explain that certified organic isn’t the gold standard, rather, beyond organic is his vision and that he has no idea what grocery store prices are because “I don’t shop at the grocery store” and that yes, sometimes chickens are kept in cages with sawdust at the bottom when they are temporarily on display for an event. The prosecution then rests also.

I catch the expression of one of the jurors and it mirrors my thoughts. That’s it? Where’s the blatant disregard for the law? Where are the complaints? Where is the proof of harm? Although I feel fairly confident that none of these things exist, I assumed there would be some attempt at showing that the co-op is a danger to society or, at the least, in violation of the law.

The jury begins deliberations on Wednesday at about 3pm. Supporters and friends surround Alvin in the hallway and Alvin, as usual, is upbeat and calm as he proclaims that no matter the verdict, the co-op will keep running on volunteer hours. He contends that he can easily live, even thrive on raw milk for the duration of any jail time he receives, but he also gives credit to the jury, fully expecting them to be fair. Just a few minutes after deliberations begin, the lawyers are called back into the courtroom to answer the question posed by the jury, “Are cow leases legal in Minnesota?” The prosecution answers that she has no idea and Nathan offers his opinion if the judge allows it. The judge, however, declines Nathan’s offer and responds that the jury “has all the laws they need in front of them”. Some supporters interpret this response as unfair as there is currently no law concerning cow lease in Minnesota. However I interpret it as giving careful clarity. Since cow lease by members is part of the defense argument, the lawfulness of it is critical to the case.

There is no verdict reached by 4:30 that afternoon and the jury goes home with a plan to reconvene at 9:30 the following morning. The potluck this evening is intimate with just a few of us in attendance. Still the discussion is lively as we plan our next moves as a community. It is clear as we hug our goodbyes that no matter the verdict, the friendships that we have fostered are stronger than ever and our trust and respect for each other is unbreakable.

On Thursday morning at 9:30am we form a support circle in the hallway. Children play with Legos as the adults hold hands and offer prayers, thoughts, and visions for the outcome of the trial as well as for the food freedom movement itself. Lunchtime comes and goes. As usual for this group, people share what they’d brought from home; dried meat, hard-boiled eggs, ferments, veggies, and of course raw milk.

At 1:20 that afternoon one of the two reporters in attendance exits the courtroom with the words we are waiting for, “They have your verdict”. The clerk comes out and makes it official. As we gather up the children and our belongings, we all realize that this is it. Aware that the entire country is waiting along with us, we sit as the jury files in and the clerk stands to read the verdict. Charge one, not guilty. Charge two, not guilty. Charge three, not guilty. Stunned silence for a second and then gasps and cries of joy as we surround Alvin in the biggest group hug most of us have ever been a part of. A few of the little ones, unsure what was happening but wanting to be a part of it, throw their arms around each other, hugging and kissing. We walk out of the courthouse into the open arms of more supporters. Phones come out and news spreads like wildfire. Alvin calls his wife and in that moment of complete joy, Alvin smiles, his blue eyes twinkling and reports, “Well somehow she knew already. She’s….happy”.

What a surreal moment for us; a group of people accustomed to operating outside of the societal norm by standing up for what we believe, trying to educate others and bring back the ways of eating that we know can nurture and heal and undernourished population. That we had a group of six with no vested interest in our cause, make the decision that yes, we do have this right to nutrient-dense foods from the food co-op and that the state’s interpretation of Alvin’s actions are subjective, is not just a victory for us but proof positive that people are awake. They are opening their eyes to what is happening in our state and country.

This is great news for us, of course, but it’s also a reminder that the gravity of the food situation in this country is bigger than us. With the country watching, our responsibility is of the utmost importance to educate peacefully and spread the positive messages about clean, traditional eating, sustainable farming and building community. This cannot be taken lightly. Leaving the courthouse that day, we all brainstorm about how best to fulfill these responsibilities.

So what do foodies do when they celebrate? Why they eat of course! For the fourth and last time that week, we gather for an impromptu party at the park. The energy we bring to that potluck cannot be matched. There are no handshakes given by Thursday evening. Hugs are both our greetings and our goodbyes. We went into the courthouse on Monday as friends and acquaintances. We came out on Thursday as family.

Kathy

Every time, I’m so tempted to end with something like “Thank you MDA!” as the last line. Any thoughts? I love it but maybe a little snide.

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