That quote echoed through my mind during my nine-month deployment in Iraq with the United States Marines back in 2004. I came home, thinking I had done some good not only for my country but for my family. At the time I thought my baby boy was going to grow up without the threat of terrorism and the Iraqi people were now free to choose their own destiny. However, those nine months had taken a heavy toll. I stared daily in the mirror, looking into the eyes of a cold and tired soul with more gray hair than any twenty-three year old deserved. Adjusting to civilian life was hard, and my family was suffering. I was in need of healing, and I found it back on the farm I grew up on.
There was something deeply satisfying about the cool Ozark air blowing across the fields of waist-high fescue grass. The cows stood chewing contentedly while their young calves frolicked about seeing who could kick their back legs the highest. My father had spent his entire adult life working, saving and accumulating over one thousand acres of productive grassland in northwestern Arkansas. Besides the peace it brought me, the thought of being self-sufficient and self-employed in a profession as noble and humble as farming drew me in further. Would I continue his path of the conventional beef market? Would I certify organic, or find overseas markets? No, my path was a more local one.
In the following years the local food movement heated up. New words like nutritional density, biodynamics and sustainability filled my vocabulary. I toured successful farms and sought the advice of their entrepreneurial owners. They said raw (unpasteurized) dairy was at the forefront of the local, nutrient dense food movement and they were gaining market share every year. That settled it – a raw dairy herd would be the centerpiece of our diversified farm as well as meats and vegetables of every kind. We’d have an on-farm store stocked with raw milk and cheeses and frozen meats and fresh, seasonal veggies! It would be glorious!
Except – it’s illegal to sell raw dairy products in Arkansas and twenty-one other states. It’s also illegal to sell any meat that hasn’t been processed in a USDA or state inspected facility. In Arkansas, it’s illegal to have a flock of more than 200 laying hens unless I pay for the equipment and facilities to qualify for Grade A certification. It may soon be illegal to own livestock of any kind without belonging to a government database called the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and having each animal tagged with an RFID chip. A carbon tax for animal flatulence is also in the works to stave off the "imminent threat" of global warming.
Excuse me? Is this the land of the free or what? What exactly did I get rocketed, mortared and road-side bombed for nine months in Iraq if not to have the freedom to do as I please as long as I wasn’t hurting anybody? Let me get this straight – I can pour toxic chemicals on my crops, process hundreds of animals an hour over feces-covered conveyors, or sell genetically alter foods with documented health risks as long as it’s approved or supervised by inept government trolls? The government had, over the last one hundred years or so, positioned itself squarely between myself and my personal and economic happiness. I was angry. I had been used and thrown away, and now found myself in the belly of the leviathan I had once sworn to protect.
Every time the market is suppressed, it goes underground – and real food is no different. People sell raw milk as pet food, or offer shares of their farm’s production in exchange for labor and feed costs. Others just ignore the laws outright, and offer their superior products despite the legal risks. Some pay the price – overzealous regulators issue crippling fines, and some are jailed. Some have even been attacked by armed state thugs with their families held at gunpoint while search warrants are executed. They take everything, all with the approval from their Federal masters at the USDA.
Thomas Paine’s quote floats around in my head once more as I ponder the future. I was so wrong those four years ago. The battle for freedom is not over, not by a long shot and the biggest threat to it is certainly not from Islamic terrorism. Food freedom will become an important front in this battle as the government-subsidized methods of food production collapse in the wake of economic reality. It will be important to everyone in the coming years to have many reliable, local sources of healthy, wholesome food.
Once again I have no choice but to fight. This time it is different – our weapon is the awesome power of voluntary interaction in the private marketplace with the goal being nothing short of total liberty for all. I’ll drink some raw milk to that.
Brian Keeter is a computer programmer, ex-Marine, and third-generation farmer living in the hills of northwestern Arkansas. See his blog.
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