A Dairy Farmer’s Right to Sell Raw Milk

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
John Kolczynski poses with Gina, one of 14 Jerseys and Guernseys in his herd. John owns a small dairy farm where he fought for the right to sell natural milk to consumers directly.

There’s an old American proverb (you probably first heard
it in grade school) that says: “You can’t fight city hall.” According to this dictum, you shouldn’t try
even try to confront the Powers That Be …
because “you can’t win.”

“I guess I never learned that proverb,” says John A.
Kolezynski of Long Valley, New Jersey,” Beacuse when the
creameries — and the Department of Health — in my
state conspired to me out of the dairy bussiness, I was
‘dumb’ enough to fight back. And when I did, I found out
something interesting about the American system of justice:
It still works. Sometimes.”

On April 15, 1974, I received a summons to appear in court.
I was being sued by the state of New Jersey.

Specifically, I was charged with violating a state law
which read: “No person shall sell or distribute to the
ultimate consumer any milk, cream, or other unpasteurized
dairy product that is not certified.” On May 10, 1974 (the
summons said) I was to appear before his honor, Judge
Robert H. Muir, Jr., at the Morris County Superior Court,
to receive a “cease and desist” order.

To Begin at the Beginning

I’m a dairy farmer. (Have been since 1947.) And I enjoy
what I do … but I’ve never harbored any desire to become
a giant in the world of agribusiness. I’ve never wanted to
become a “big-time” dairy farmer … although when I was
younger, that was what I thought I had to
do to keep my business profitable.

Back in the fifties, my wife and I expanded our operation
from 13 to 50-some-odd cows (and mortgaged the better part
of our lives to buy 123 acres of land). At our peak, we
managed a herd that produced a ton of milk per day.

What we couldn’t understand at the time, though, was
why — in the process of becoming bigger
— we’d also become poorer . We were in debt
up to (and beyond) our ears, and while most of the rest of
the nation enjoyed prosperity, we lived in a
depression … as did millions of other farm families who
were trying desperately to hold onto their land.

We were luckier than many of the others, though. We got out
of debt … by selling most of our land. (Notice that it
was not our production — our milk — that
paid off our debts, but our means of production:
our cows and our land.) A funny thing happened, though,
when we became smaller: We also became more efficient.

The System, however, doesn’t reward efficiency (on a small
scale) … as I learned on February 28, 1972, when I
received a registered letter from my creamery stating
that — because of my herd’s small output (250 pounds
daily) — they would no longer pick up my milk. I had 60
days (the letter said) to find another market for it.

The Battle Begins

Upon receiving my “layoff” notice from the creamery, I
immediately began to get in touch with other creameries.
And, to my amazement and dismay, they all told me the same
thing: “Make more milk, and we’ll take you on.”

I wrote to New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Phillip
Alampi to see if maybe he could find a market for
my milk. He wrote back to say that he couldn’t locate a
creamery that would pick up such a small volume. A few days
later, I wrote Mr. Alampi again to ask whom I could contact
with regard to having my milk certified (so I could sell it
myself) … and he was kind enough to send me a list of
names. I contacted everyone on the list, but the answer was
the same: my production was too small to bother with.

As a last resort, I wrote to the Governor and explained my
situation. His answer (which I received via the Secretary
of Agriculture) was, “It’s distressing that we in
government do not have a solution to the problems that you
are now facing, but don’t you dare sell raw milk.”

My 60 days were nearly up at this point and — as
yet — I had found no new buyer for my small farm’s
product. “I guess we’ll have to go on welfare pretty soon,”
I told my wife. “Because after May first, we aren’t going
to have an income.”

The Welfare Experience

Around the middle of April, my wife and I did go down to
the Morris County welfare office, where we filled out a
large application form. When we turned it in, the clerk
told me to sign up for work at the New Jersey Employment
Security office … which was where we went next.

Now, when you sign up for employment you have to list your
occupation on a card … and a clerk then has to find the
proper code number to match the occupation you’ve
indicated. Naturally, I put down “farmer” as my occupation
… but — and here’s catch-22 — after searching
through two gigantic code books, the clerk who waited on me
said “There’s no code number given for ‘farmer.’ What else
can you do?” He ended up putting me down as a maintenance
man’s helper (or some such). Here I was, a farmer — top
man in the agrarian system — reduced to low man in the
industrial class by some cockamamie law. I couldn’t believe
it.

But there’s more. When I went back to the welfare office,
the clerk there told me: “Sell your cows, and when you’ve
used that money up, then we can help you.”

Needless to say, I did a lot of deep thinking at home that
night. More than anything, I was stunned by the sheer irony
of the situation. New Jersey officials are supposedly
“concerned” these days about the state’s losing what few
farm families it has left … yet here I was — a small
farmer being forced out of business, pleading for help — and
no one, from the Governor on down to the lowest welfare
office clerk, seemed to give a damn. “Incredible,” I
thought to myself. “Just incredible.”

Farming in the USA

May 1 finally came. And as I watched the milk tank truck
pull out of my farm for the last time, I saw go with it a
life’s work. For I now had no market for my milk, no income, no job, no unemployment benefits, no welfare…
nothing, except a six-acre farm, 13 cows, 50 chickens, a
wife, three children, and a dream I’d first dreamed when I
was eleven years old.

At this point, I was faced with a hard decision: Should I
buckle under to Big Business and Big Government … or
should I hold my ground, stand up for my rights, and risk
the consequences?

Well, it seemed to me that the creameries had no right
to dictate the size of my farm (which — in
essence — is exactly what they were trying to do), and the state had no right both to forbid me to sell
uncertified milk to the consuming public AND refuse (simply
because my output was “too small”) to even consider
certifying my milk (which was exactly what the Department
of Health had done). I felt fully justified, then, in
taking the only course of action that seemed right to me
… which was to begin selling my cows’ milk on the open
market (that is, direct to consumers.)

So I began selling 100 percent natural raw milk on my farm,
and — thanks to word of mouth advertising — I
enjoyed surprisingly brisk business for over a year. One
day, however, the inevitable happened: Department of Health
officials appeared at the door and told me to stop.

“What else can I do?” I asked them. “This is the only way I
have to make a living — an honest living-from the land,
raise a family, and pay taxes. I’ve contacted everyone in
this state from the Governor on down and no one will lift a
finger to help me. This is all I have. I have absolutely no
other choice … no other way to live.”

But the officials who visited us were not interested in
hearing about the Kafka situation we were in. They didn’t
care. They had a job to do. I was violating a state law.
They had to shut me down.

And, of course, there wasn’t any way I could shut
down … not if I wanted to keep feeding my family. So the
officials came back, again and again. And every time they
visited my farm, they cranked the pressure we were living
under up another notch. The whole power of the state of New
Jersey, in short, was increasingly brought to bear on my
little farm. And, finally, I was sued by the state and told
to appear in court.

My wife, unable to cope with the strain we were under,
committed suicide. And that left me really alone … alone
with three children to raise and a whole state treating me
like a common criminal. And all because I was merely trying
to make a small living in the only way I could … by
selling a natural and unadulterated product to people who
were eager to buy it.

Legal Aid

When it’d become evident that the Department of Health was
taking my case seriously, I started to look for legal help.

First, I contacted the American Civil Liberties Union …
and was told I didn’t have a chance. Then I went to the
Morris County Legal Aid Society … but — because I
wasn’t a card-carrying welfare recipient — they too
refused to help me. More catch-22’s.

Finally, some neighbor-friends of mine got in touch with
their lawyer, who in turn recommended that I contact an
attorney by the name of George J. Benson. I went to see
him, and took with me a bagful of letters I’d accumulated
over the past year.

Mr. Benson seemed skeptical at first when I told him that
the state intended to sue me … but when I produced
fistfuls of correspondence (from the Governor’s office, the
Secretary of Agriculture, the Medical Milk Commissioner,
the Milk Program Project Coordinator, the Department of
Health, the Welfare Department, and the Employment Security
office), his eyes immediately lit up. I think he knew then
that we had a case.

Without further ado, I set about informing the local media
of my situation. And before long, I was swamped
with newspaper reporters. (I hit front page in many papers,
and was even interviewed for an eight-minute spot on a
local TV news program.)

Of course, most people thought I was tilting at windmills.
Well-meaning friends and acquaintances told me: “John, you
can’t fight government. You’re wasting your time and money.
They’ll only wear you down.” Maybe … but if you believe
in basic human rights, you stand up for those beliefs just
as Washington, Adams, and others did two centuries ago.
(“Eternal vigilance,” as Jefferson — I
believe — said,” is the price of liberty.”)

Postponements

For one reason or another, my trial date was postponed
three times (so that instead of going to court in May of
1974, I was to appear — finally — on January
6,1975). And, in between postponements, I wrote many
letters to the editors of New Jersey newspapers. The
following example — dated December 29, 1974 — is
representative of the letters I sent, and of my feelings at
the time.

To the editor,

On January 6, 1975, my constitutional right to sell the
organic product made by the cows on my farm will be
on trial
.

I am a small dairy farmer with an increasing market for
my natural milk. The state of New Jersey, however, tells me
that I may only sell my milk to designated buyers: that is,
to the creameries they license to pasteurize milk. These
are the same creameries that laid me off in 1972 on the
grounds that I didn’t produce enough milk for them. In
other words, then, the creameries are dictating the size my
herd must be. I contend that they are violating my right to
sell my product on the open market.

I am engaged in the production of food, a lawful
business that all governments recognize. There is no law
stating how large a farm must be in this country, but the
creameries (a part of the private sector) have taken it
upon themselves to try to force me to expand … even
though my farm is already at the proper size (six acres)
for optimum economic efficiency.

The laws that guarantee the creameries (the processors)
the power to control dairy farmers (the producers) in this
way are overriding the Constitution … and it this power
is not challenged, the Constitution itself is weakened and
thus in danger of losing its meaning.

I believe I may be the first farmer ever to go on trial
over the right to be a farmer. If the court says that I am
committing a crime against the state by selling natural
milk (for which there is a real demand) to people who want
to buy it, then we have a dictatorship form of government
and NOT the kind of democracy established by our founding
fathers. If the courts dictate who can or cannot be a
farmer, then this is the beginning of the end of our
democracy.

This is what I am on trial for and fighting to preserve
… our Constitution, and individual rights.

John A. Kolezynski

My Day in Court

Finally — on January 6, 1975 — I went to court to
defend my rights. Also there for the occasion were the
state’s Deputy Attorney General in charge of the case,
representatives for the milk industry and the Department of
Health, and my lawyer.

Mr. Benson (my attorney) had prepared a good case. He was
ready to argue — among other things — that the
so-called “state law” which forbade me to sell uncertified
milk was, in fact, nothing more than a Department of Health
edict (dating back to 1913) that had never been enacted
into law by the New Jersey legislature. The state, in other
words, had no power to force me (or anyone else) to apply
for certification before selling milk.

As it turned out, though, there was no hearing. Mr.
Benson — after meeting in private with representatives
of the state and the dairy industry — returned to his
chair and told me that all charges had been dropped. The
state had agreed (out of court) to allow me to go on
selling raw milk. I had — in effect — “won” the
case.

So: Although the Department of Health edict concerning the
certification of milk is still on the books (and will be
until a judge declares it illegal) … I am now the only
dairy farmer in New Jersey who is allowed to sell natural
(raw) milk.

Poetic Justice

It’s funny: Millions of farmers were forced out of business
in the 50’s by the very same “get big or get out” tactics
that the creameries had applied to me in the 70’s. But when
they tried to put the squeeze on me , I challenged
the legality of what they were doing … and won .

Unfortunately, mine is just an individual case. Since I
settled out of court, the Department of Health’s antiquated
and illegal “laws” still stand, and any farmer who wishes
to escape their tyranny must — as I did — wait to be
taken to court, then fight his own battle.

I like to think, however, that I’ve shown that it is
possible
to fight such a battle. That — contrary
to what everybody told me, and what everyone seems to
believe these days — you CAN fight city hall. Believe
me, you don’t know that you can’t until you try.

Postscript

Most people who come to my place tell me they feel the
“inner peace” and “strength” and “energy” that (apparently)
radiate from me. All I know is, I’m content to live the
lifestyle I’ve chosen to live … the way of life that I’ve
successfully fought to protect.