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System D – The Informal Economy

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Amish Raw Milk Smugglers

The Black Market is simply the market doing what some people don’t approve of:

From The Daily:

Amish Smuggler’s Shady Milk Run
By Jordan Heller Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wearing a black-brimmed country hat, suspenders and an Amish beard, “Samuel” unloaded his contraband from an unmarked white truck on a busy block in Manhattan. He was at the tail end of a long smuggling run that had begun before dawn at his Pennsylvania farm.

As he wearily stacked brown cardboard boxes on the sidewalk, a few upscale clients in the Chelsea neighborhood lurked nearby, eyeing the new shipment hungrily.

Clearly, they couldn’t wait to get a taste.

But he wasn’t selling them anything they planned to smoke, snort or inject. Rather, he was giving them their once-a-month fix of raw milk — an unpasteurized product banned outright in 12 states and denounced by the FDA as a public health hazard, but beloved by a small but growing number of devotees who tout both its health benefits and its flavor.

Samuel is part of a shadowy community of outlaw Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers who risk fines, loss of equipment and product, and even imprisonment to transport raw milk across state lines and satisfy a burgeoning appetite for illegal raw milk in places like New York.In January, The Daily rode along on one of these smuggling runs.

Federal Dairy Warnings

Unpasteurized milk is increasingly popular among foodies and health nuts for both its taste and its supposed nutritional benefits. But government authorities take a hard line, warning that unpasteurized milk may contain salmonella, E. coli and bacteria that can lead to typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

“Raw milk is inherently dangerous and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose,” says the Food and Drug Administration.

According to the agency, from 1998 to 2008, raw milk consumption was responsible for 1,614 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two fatalities. In a handful of states, including New York and Pennsylvania, only farmers with a special permit are allowed to sell it, and federal regulation prohibits all interstate commerce of raw milk intended for human consumption.

Not that the prohibition deters the growing number of raw-milk fans. When he brings a shipment of illegal milk to New York, Samuel has more than 140 customers waiting for him, ready to pay $6 a gallon.

Samuel’s smuggling run started in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, where his family farm is located. As Amish doctrine prohibits him from operating an automobile, he paid a non-Amish person to drive.

The final destination was an unmarked converted factory on the eastern edge of Chelsea. Upstairs, the milk deals went down in an unadorned room teeming with a crowd similar to what one might find at a Michael Pollan book signing.

Samuel is well-aware that he’s breaking the law. I asked him what he thought of a 2008 raid on Manna Storehouse, a Mennonite-run co-op in Lorain County, Ohio. According to reports, the family was held at gunpoint while agents searched the premises for unpasteurized dairy products. I also asked him about an incident last summer, when authorities busted Rawesome Foods, a raw milk-share in Venice, Calif. The police had arrived with guns drawn, as if they were raiding a meth lab. The security footage was uploaded to YouTube, alarming many in the raw milk community.

“Yeah, I heard about that,” he said. “It’s not good.”

Does he worry about the same thing happening to his Pennsylvania farm?

“Not too much,” said Samuel. But as he looks around at all the milk jugs changing hands like so many nickel and dime bags, he reconsiders.

“I mean, it could.”

Churning out the product

In mid-January, I paid a visit to Amish country to explore the roots of the raw milk supply chain. The dairy farm I visited was run by Isaac, an Amish raw milk black-marketer who, like Samuel, agreed to discuss his operation on the condition that his identity was concealed.

Isaac’s farm is roughly an hour north west of Philadelphia, not far from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on a country road well-traveled by horse-drawn buggies.

Isaac allowed me to walk in his pasture and shoot video of his black-market heifers, but when I ask to shoot the bottling operation, he declined. Isaac was already breaking an Amish restriction by allowing me to videotape him, and was not willing to subject his family — who double as his work force — to the same sin.

Tom Maurer, a leading raw milk advocate, who is non-Amish and the proprietor of the Real Food Emporium in Palmyra, Pa., joined us in Isaac’s kitchen for a discussion on the rise of the raw milk black market.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Maurer, a self-described libertarian with a white goatee and red flannel shirt. “I have heard comments about New York state where one of the biggest, underground black-market products is raw milk.”

Isaac, wearing traditional Amish clothing and an Amish beard, nodded in agreement.

Maurer dismissed the FDA’s findings on raw milk, saying he’s never heard of anyone getting more than a bellyache from the stuff.

“Your choice of what you get to eat is a right,” said Mauer. “It’s not a privilege.”

For Isaac, the issues are cultural. When it comes to dairy farming, becoming a smuggler was the only way to maintain a pure, Amish way of life.“I want my family on the farm,” he said. “I don’t want them out in the world.”

He wouldn’t be able to make ends meet in his traditional dairy operation if he was operating above board, he said. “We have church restrictions, and our people are losing that because of the way modern dairy farming is being done.”

He wondered aloud why the state won’t let him pursue his preferred way of life.

Fighting back

Isaac has yet to be raided by the authorities, but Mark Nolt, a Mennonite dairy farmer from Cumberland County, is all too familiar with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s enforcement of the law.

Nolt’s farm was raided three times in 2007 and 2008. On one occasion, state troopers took him away in handcuffs.

“They even took my cheese-making equipment,” Nolt said over the phone. He puts his losses at $100,000.

Many in the raw milk community believe law enforcement picks on the Amish and Mennonites because they don’t expect resistance. But when Nolt was taken to magistrate court, he refused to enter a plea because, he said, the court had no business in his dealings. He has similarly refused to pay his fines — $4,000 and counting.

Nolt’s resistance, which has been well-documented, has earned him a rather grand moniker: “the Rosa Parks of the farmers’ rights movement.”

Though shy about the comparison, Nolt doesn’t disclaim the nickname. “What were we to do? Agree to their falsehood? Or just stand upon the truth? And we chose truth.”

Getting  a taste

Back in Manhattan, as the raw milk buyers transferred their contraband from brown cardboard boxes to unmarked backpacks and black suitcases, Samuel told me how he goes about circumventing the law.

By using a transactional contrivance, he argued that he wasn’t technically “selling” — his users submit orders beforehand, but the driver acted as a middleman. Samuel didn’t seem to have much confidence the loophole would work in the event of a raid, but he still used it.

Amid the wholesome-looking clientele, the enthusiasm is undeniable.

“It’s a different taste, a different experience,” said Kate Zidar, a raw milk user who lives in Brooklyn. She compared penetrating the raw milk circuit to hearing about an underground party,  “like a rave.”

I decided, over very serious reservations, that maybe I should give raw milk a try. I asked Samuel if he’d sell me some.

“I’m helping you out, right?” he said.

I asked if his “help” might make me sick.

“You might get bellyache,” Samuel said. But then he reassured me: “Milk is good for you.”