GIBBON, MINN. -- The organic farmer who produced raw milk linked to illness in four Minnesotans, including a toddler who remained hospitalized Thursday, has for years fought the government's efforts to regulate him.
Michael Hartmann, whose dairy is just outside this town of 800 people, last had a license to sell Grade A milk in 2001. He has kicked inspectors off his property, refused to tell a judge his name in court and asserted he is a "natural man" with a constitutional right to raise and sell food without government interference.
State officials said Thursday that the investigation of his dairy is continuing but said they have little doubt it produced the raw milk containing a deadly strain of E. coli.
"I am concerned that we are going to hear about more cases," said Dr. Kirk Smith, supervisor of state Health Department foodborne disease investigations. It often takes up to two weeks for cases to surface, he added.
While raw milk advocates believe it offers health benefits, experts say it's risky because it hasn't been pasteurized. The heat treatment discovered more than a century ago reduces bacteria, including E. coli O157:H7, which brings on diarrhea and sometimes more serious illness.
Three of the patients in the current outbreak have been released from the hospital, but the toddler developed a potentially deadly complication.
Hartmann declined to talk about the outbreak with a reporter Thursday, other than to say, "It's all been blown out of proportion."
Hartmann Dairy, run by Hartmann and his wife, Diane, has long operated as an organic farm, and in the early 1990s sold pasteurized organic milk to grocers and several Twin Cities co-ops under the Minnesota Organic Milk or "M.O.M.s" brand.
Randy and Kathy Ahlbrecht run a nearby dairy farm and have known the Hartmanns for decades. She described Michael Hartmann as a generous, church-going man who is always fighting the government. "He tells my husband that you don't have to pay your taxes," she said. "He's got this big book he walks around with that's all about how to get around your government." She said she doesn't share his views.
In 1993, Hartmann refused to let animal health officials test his swine for pseudo rabies and was fined $450. Court papers say the Hartmanns sold uninspected meat as early as 1998. And in 2001, the dairy's license to sell Grade A milk was revoked after state inspectors discovered unsanitary conditions, including chickens roaming and defecating in the milking parlor, according to the state Agriculture Department.
Yet the Hartmanns still operate a creamery. State officials say it is illegal for the Hartmanns to sell raw milk away from the farm. But customers say they pay the dairy directly for the raw milk, which is dropped off at a customer's home for pickup by other buyers.
Sibley County feedlot officer Greg DeVries said he witnessed Michael Hartmann's anti-government views first-hand in 2000, when he tried to inspect the farm.
"He said, 'You can't do it. You have to show me why you are out here.' He basically got angry with me and I left," DeVries said. County officials later got a court order to inspect the farm, and sheriff's deputies came along with inspectors, who found no feedlot violations.
That incident provoked one of Hartmann's many legal challenges against the government, in which he declared himself a "natural man" and "an heir of the Organic laws of the Land and Nation." He has been fined and jailed for zoning and building permit violations. He unsuccessfully sued a bank in 2007 when it attached an IRS levy of $463,443 to an account under the name M.O.M.'s Dairy Trust.
Hartmann said in a court filing that many of the disputes are based on the "erroneous assumption" that because he owns land in the county, "the government has unlimited authority to interfere with my quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the land and the fruits of my labor."
Hartmann said he does his utmost to maintain his independence, self-reliance and individual responsibility. "Yet I am regularly and personally attacked for my choices," he wrote.
In 2002, McLeod County prosecutors charged the Hartmanns with selling uninspected ground beef, pork chops and other meat out of a van in Hutchinson. Michael Hartmann refused to be fingerprinted, wouldn't give his name to a judge in court and instead demanded that someone "show me the bond," said Assistant County Attorney Amy Olson.
A judge threw Hartmann in jail for four days, but the legal battle lasted another three years and went to the state Supreme Court. The couple succeeded in getting one charge dropped, but their conviction on the central charge -- selling uninspected meat -- was upheld.
As that case ground through the courts, the Agriculture Department discovered the dairy selling its raw M.O.M.s milk out of a truck in an Excelsior parking lot in 2004. This time, it was Hartmann's brother, Roger, who was caught in a sting operation, but when the case was presented to Hennepin County prosecutors, they declined to file charges, said Heidi Kassenborg, the state Agriculture Department's director of dairy and food inspection. A spokesman for the prosecutor's office said it had no records about the decision.
Kassenborg said she doesn't know why the case was dropped, but said the sale of raw milk wasn't considered a big problem then. When Michael Hartmann came in with his brother to speak to Agriculture Department officials about the sales, he was polite, but "he challenged a lot of the laws," she said.
The 2004 raw-milk selling operation took place in a city parking lot next to the Spring Hill Waldorf School, which is attended by one of the four victims in the latest outbreak. State investigators visited the school Wednesday to find out if other students had gotten sick, but a school official said no others were identified.
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