By Gregg Hoffmann
VIROQUA – Circuit Court Judge Michael Rosborough ruled Monday that the founder of Belle’s Lunchbox, which offers raw milk products, must give a deposition to an attorney for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Max Kane Farley, who goes by Max Kane, said after the ruling that he will appeal the decision. Kane represented himself at the hearing on Monday.
In making his ruling, Rosborough denied a motion by Kane that the DATCP deposition be dismissed because it violates the constitutional rights of him and his family. Rosborough advised Kane to hire an attorney and go through the deposition.
The judge praised Kane for how he conducted himself in court, but said he knowledge of the law was “primitive” and representing himself put him at a “tremendous disadvantage” in a courtroom.
Kane did show up for a deposition meeting earlier this year, but in the words of Phillip Ferris, an assistant attorney general representing DATCP, made it “crystal clear” that he would not answer Ferris’s questions. Kane said he did not evoke his Fifth Amendment rights during the session, which he assumed was more of a meeting on issues.
The case stems from an Illinois incident in which the mother of a 16-year-old told health officials he drank raw milk he got from Belle’s Lunchbox, which has ties to Chicago and Viroqua. Illinois officials notified DATCP officials, who requested that Kane give the agency details of Belle’s Lunchbox, which technically is a private club in which members own the cows that provide the raw milk. The practice often is referred to as “cowshares.”
Kane responded with a “cease and desist” letter, and DATCP countered with a subpoena for Kane to give a deposition.
Rosborough ruled that DATCP is authorized to issue subpoenas and investigate the sale of raw milk under laws governing public health. Kane maintained the milk is not actually sold through Belle’s Lunchbox, because it is a private club with members.
Kane also expressed concerns that testimony he might give under immunity at a deposition could be used by Illinois or federal officials against him. Rosborugh, Ferris and other officials said Kane’s immunity would prohibit other state and federal prosecutors from using his answers in a deposition in any future cases.
The case has drawn the attention of raw milk advocates from around the country. More than 100 people braved 20 degree temperatures at a rally on the Courthouse steps before the hearing on Monday morning. Many of them also packed the courtroom.
Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy in California, said that 65,000 people a week buy raw milk in 400 stores and through other outlets in that state. More than 20 states allow the sale of such milk.
“We’re talking about linking the farmer with the consumer here, rather than paying a middleman.” McAfee said. “There is ample evidence out there that raw milk is healthier for people.”
State Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, has introduced a bill that would allow the sale of raw milk by farmers to consumers in Wisconsin. Advocates say it opens up another market for farmers, as well as gives consumers more choices.
David Gumpert, the author of The Raw Milk Revolution, made the trip to Viroqua from Boston and said the consumption of raw milk is growing dramatically.
Mark Kastel, founder of the Cornucopia Institute, which advocates for family farms, said direct farmer-to-consumer sales are important for many farmers who are struggling. “We are de-coupled from our agrarian roots,” Kastel said. “We have lost our reverence for those who grow our food.”
Kastel said farmers who pasture their cows and follow other organic principles “are some of the safest farmers in our society.”
Many at the rally carried signs that read “Max Kane is a hero”, “Who decides what food we eat?” and had other slogans.
All four of Kane’s brothers appeared at the rally and hearing. They said their brother used raw milk and other raw products to overcome Crohn’s Disease. He has not needed medication or doctor’s care for five years.
“People value this,” said Dan Farley of Glen Ellyn, Ill. “I’m proud how Max has managed to reach out to others. He wants to help people.”