DOA seizes organic farmer's van outside of Veggie Co-Op

By Max Loos

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture seized a truck full of food products belonging to organic farmer Alvin Schlangen while he was making a delivery to the Veggie Co-Op on Wednesday, Mar. 9, bringing conflicts about agricultural practice to Macalester and spurring a small dispute between the Veggie Co-Op and Macalester’s administration. The DOA seized the truck as part of an investigation of whether or not Schlangen has been selling raw milk to the public and selling food without the proper license. The DOA obtained their warrant after they opened up Schlangen’s vehicle and spotted oranges, which indicated that Schlangen was not just selling products from his Minnesota farm.

The conflict in the case revolves around whether or not Schlangen is illegally selling food products to the public. He maintains that he distributes food to a private club of about 85 families in which the members of the club pay for a share in the lease of the animals that produce the food.

“We don’t have anything for sale,” Schlangen said. He reiterated that he has never sold raw milk to the public, and that the ownership structure of the club allows food products the be distributed to members under a farmer’s right to sell and distribute their own products.

The DOA seems to disagree. Though it has declined to comment on its ongoing investigation, it appears that they have focused on Schlangen for allegedly selling raw milk to the public and selling produce to the public without proper licensing.

“The state constitution does allow farmers to sell products from their farm or garden direct to consumers without a license,” said MDA communications coordinator Margaret Hart in an email. “However, when individuals move from selling their own produce to selling manufactured food products and products clearly not grown on their farm, they must get a license.”

The DOA has also seized food from Schlangen’s warehouse in Minneapolis. According to Schlangen, the products seized are worth thousands of dollars, money that he depends on.

The Veggie Co-Op has been buying eggs from Schlangen for several years, and has received raw milk from him in the past, as a member of the private food club. According to state law, raw milk can only be sold on the premises of the farm at which it is produced, but whether the milk was actually being sold is still debatable.

The DOA investigation of Schlangen has also led to a rift between members of the Veggie Co-Op and the Macalester administration, particularly the department of Residential Life.

ResLife has asked the members of the Veggie Co-Op not to purchase products from Schlangen until they can confirm that his products do meet appropriate safety standards. The members of the Veggie Co-Op, though, articulated through a series of emails with ResLife Director Keith Edwards that they are committed to purchasing eggs from Schlangen.

“In the co-op, we like buying eggs from Alvin because we prefer to get our food, particularly animal products, from local sources we support and believe to be ethical,” the members said in a collective email.

“My bigger concern about this situation is that the school is actively refusing to participate in this food justice issue and I think that that’s really inappropriately cautious given the values that Macalester promotes,” Veggie Co-Op R.A. Sarah O’Connor said.

“Food justice is the basis of [the Veggie Co-Op] community, and the directive seems to be to dilute that in the interests of school image or potential liability rather than social justice, civic engagement, citizenship,” she said.

According to Dean of Students Jim Hoppe, though, Macalester’s administration is concerned primarily with health and safety, not image.

“If we’re made aware of a potential issue, we have the obligation to act responsibly,” Hoppe said. “I really hope this is a situation where everybody can agree that safety is first.”

Associate Director of Residential Life Peg Olson said that ResLife is interested mainly in whether Schlangen has all of the proper licensing from the State of Minnesota.

“Since the Veggie co-op is a part of Macalester it makes sense that Macalester would be buying from a vendor with the proper license/certificate/form that is needed under the law,” Olson said in an email.

“I don’t feel like this is an attempt to make a value judgment on the company.” Hoppe said.

The members of the Veggie Co-Op, though, are not waiting for Macalester’s administration to make up its mind, and have continued to receive shipments of eggs from Schlangen, paying for them out of their own pockets.

Schlangen said he plans to file a criminal complaint against the officer in charge of the investigation for what he considers an illegal seizure of property. He also plans to get involved in efforts to pass legislation that would make the sale of raw milk legal in Minnesota.

“They don’t have a right to do what they’ve already done and they’re only getting away with that temporarily,” Schlangen said. “We’re not standing idle, and we’re not allowing this to happen again.