Eldon Hooley wasn’t really sure what he was being charged with by Fort Worth’s consumer health department when he walked into municipal court last Wednesday. All that the owner of Rosey Ridge Farm knew was when and where he had been told to appear. Entering the austere, wood-trimmed courtroom, he was surprised to see longtime customers, friends, and dozens of other supporters waiting for him.
Advocates for unprocessed, organic foods had heard the alarm sounded on Facebook by Real Milk Texas, a Fort Worth-based raw-food activist group.
His court appearance was over in minutes. Hooley was given a new court date — Tuesday, Nov. 25 — and documents outlining the charges against him. According to the city, Hooley had violated a recently passed city ordinance by maintaining an illegal food establishment within city limits and distributing “unfit food” with the help of volunteer groups or co-ops. If Hooley is found in violation, he faces fines totaling over $3,000.
“I want to emphasize that I am not ‘fighting’ these charges,” Hooley said. “I am ‘defending’ myself.”
The terms would seem synonymous to most people, but the distinction is important for Hooley, a devout follower of the pacifist Anabaptist faith.
The case highlights an ongoing division between, on one hand, consumers and advocates of raw milk, who say it has significant health benefits, and on the other, numerous state and local officials who see it as a public health risk.
While it is legal to purchase raw milk directly from farms with a Grade-A raw-for-retail milk permit, it has been illegal in Fort Worth since 2000 to sell the milk at retail stores. The new ordinance, passed in June, adds further restrictions by prohibiting individuals from distributing raw milk from their homes without the proper permit, effectively requiring consumers to make trips to farms like Rosey Ridge in Johnson County. Hooley is the first farmer to be charged under the new ordinance.
Hooley said that he never delivers raw milk to consumers and that the charge that he directs raw-milk co-ops is false.
Co-ops, he said, are by definition informal agreements among volunteers –– there’s no entity behind them. Once someone purchases milk from a farm, he added, it becomes the buyer’s property, and the city has no right to confiscate it.
Calls to the consumer health division of Fort Worth’s code compliance department were not returned.
B.J. Vercontaire, a volunteer for Real Milk Texas, believes raw milk is getting a raw deal. Along with educating people about raw milk’s health benefits, her group advocates for legislation. State Rep. Dan Flynn of Hunt County, who authored an unsuccessful bill in 2013 to allow raw milk to be sold at farmers’ markets, said he plans to introduce a similar bill when the Texas Legislature convenes next year.
Raw Milk Texas was formed two months ago in response to the closure of local farms like Campbell’s Classic Dairy in Cleburne, a place that Vercontaire believes was singled out unfairly.
“We decided something needed to be done,” she said. “Our purpose is to be a place for people to figure out what’s going on and what they can do to help. We try to help farmers when they are in trouble.”
Raw milk, she said, “is just as safe as regular milk if it’s produced in a facility that’s clean.” State health inspectors, the Texas Medical Association, and city officials disagree.
Hooley is working with health-food author Thomas Martin and the national farmer-advocacy group Farm to Market Legal Defense Fund to plan his defense.
“This guy’s just trying to raise his family and run a farm, and he is being demonized,” Martin said. “I find it to be outrageous and a cause worth fighting for.”
Should he lose his case, Hooley believes city consumer health officials will try to shut down his access to Fort Worth consumers, leaving him with two options: close up shop or form a private association that divides ownership of his farm among consumers.
Hooley said he respects the need to restrict the uses of plants like tobacco and marijuana because of proven health dangers but that people should be free to choose natural foods without government interference.
“I’m going to defend this case,” he said. “People should have the freedom to choose what they feed their families.”