Cowing Family Farms
Amish farmer Amos Miller’s ongoing battle with federal regulators is representative of the broader war on family farmers.
Federal marshals arrived at the doorstep of Amish farmer Amos Miller on June 24, 2021. They were putting his entire meat, pork, and poultry inventory on hold indefinitely for violating U.S. Department of Agriculture rules.
It wasn’t the first time Miller had dealt with federal marshals and the USDA, and it wouldn’t be the last. It was just the latest piece in a six year dispute between his association of small farmers, Miller’s Organic Farm, in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, and the federal government, over whether he has the right to process and sell meat without abiding the presence and proscriptions of a federal inspector. It’s a dispute that continues today.
A members-only association of several small farms in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania area, Miller’s Organic Farm has been selling non-GMO, grass-fed, unbleached meat and dairy products since 2000. For Amos Miller’s family, however, farming goes back a lot further: more than 100 years.
Miller describes his product as “nutrient dense” and “raw”—that is, untouched by any form of preservative. In addition to Amos’s cows and pigs, the Miller’s Organic Farm association also sells poultry, cow, and pig products from other local farmers, as well as camel and water-buffalo milk, local produce, and homemade bakery items. In order to shop from the farm, interested customers have to apply to become a member of the association, which includes signing a contract agreeing to take on themselves the risk of eating the raw products, which are not regulated by the USDA. The association has approximately 4,000 members.
In 2017, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) brought a subpoena against Miller after he denied the federal agency access to his records and meat and poultry facilities, beginning the ongoing dispute. One month before the marshals arrested his meat in 2021, the U.S. district court in eastern Pennsylvania had ruled that Miller’s Organic Farm had violated the court’s injunction order and consent decree, and could no longer sell fresh or newly slaughtered meat, meat food products, poultry, or poultry food products, until it liquidated its existing inventory. The order also required the association to post a public notice, in agency-approved language, to its 4,000 members to let them know they could not purchase meat for the foreseeable future. Miller had disobeyed the court’s order to change his business model and instead continued to process his meat without a federal inspector, which led to the marshals’ visit. His punishment was cancellation of his livelihood, a handful of fines amounting to over $250,000, and the threat of jail time.
For Miller, it all boils down to providing meat in the hands-off way that his family has for over a century—the very reason thousands of members buy from Miller’s Organic Farm.
“The customers want to take their health in their own hands,” Miller told The American Conservative. “They don't trust the government, because the preserved meat in the stores, farmers can put bleach and citric acid on it—not like lime or orange juice, but manufactured citric acid, which can come from corn, it could be produced in China—they can use that and it doesn’t have to be labeled on the meat to be sold. So the customers trust us, rather than the USDA labels in the store.”
The use of citric acid and other bleaching agents has become the sticking point for the Miller’s Organic Farm members, a particularly difficult one as most federally inspected facilities use the very chemicals the association members wish to avoid.
A two-hour car ride from Bird-in-Hand is another Pennsylvania town called Chambersburg, where a federally inspected facility had agreed to use an apple cider vinegar solution, rather than citric acid, to rinse the carcasses of Miller’s meat and pork before processing it, a compromise Miller said most—though not all—of his members were willing to make. There, he has transported his meat and pork to be processed since 2019. Poultry has been more difficult. The only federally inspected facility within reach that might consider a more natural bleaching alternative is all the way in Romulus, New York, and even they have not promised any agreement, according to Amos.
The meat then makes its way back to Miller’s Organic Farm, before shipping out across rural Pennsylvania and all over the United States. That is, it did, until the federal marshals showed up in June. Now, Miller says he’s stopped processing altogether. His freezers are steadily emptying, with a solution to the processing conflict still a long way off.
“It’s very difficult to follow all the rules and regulations put in place for that, that’s why so many farmers don’t do it,” Miller said. “Our members would rather have a small amount of bacteria than the bleach that’s on the meat. They say that’s worse.”
In the two decades of the farm’s operation, the USDA has not received a single complaint of ill-health due to a product from Miller’s Organic Farm. The members, eager to protect their source for raw food and inspired by Weston Price’s food philosophy, have repeatedly crowd-funded Amos’s legal fees, even though as an Amish man he cannot ask them for money. But until he can find a solution that satisfies both the government’s demands and his members’ health concerns, Miller is at an impasse. Applying for his own federal license could cost between $200,000 and $300,000, a heavy load for a small farm with small margins.
The precise cause that led the USDA to come after Miller’s Organic Farm, while others remain untouched, is unclear, but the close kinship between the dominant meatpacking firms and the USDA has been well-documented.
What Miller and his farmers are learning the hard way is what happens when a small farm stands up against the federal government. Like the non-profits targeted by the IRS in the 2010s, even when the backlash is both severe and public, even when there is clear abuse of power, it is never the government agency that suffers the damages.
In this case, the damages are more than mere abundance of regulation. They are not limited to concern for the little guy. As small farms continue to be pushed out of the picture, whether due to the invisible hand of the market, which favors big players, or the heavy hand of the government, which favors conformity, the result will be a loss of diversity in both the foods available and the sources from which they can be purchased.
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Even in the Amish community, small-scale farming has become largely unsustainable in the past 15 years due to just such regulatory agencies, according to Miller. Many have gone out of business, he said.
“My goal here is to hopefully get the senators and congressmen to change laws so that future generations can continue to be farmers, because that’s what our people love to do,” Miller said. “But the way things are going now, the future generations won’t be able to be farmers. It’s very difficult.”
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.