©National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association 2012
On February 1, 2012 Paul Pierce, agent of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), told Mennonite farmer and butcher Arlin Bender that DATCP is charging him as a criminal for professionally butchering meat belonging to his friends and neighbors. A lifelong butcher, Bender moved to a Mennonite community in Wisconsin in the summer of 2010 from New York, where he had owned a butcher shop with several employees for decades. Bender, who has a heart condition, wanted his wife to be near their children in Wisconsin should anything happen to him. Following is Bender’s story, in his words, of events after he settled in Wisconsin.
In the summer of 2011 I called the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to ask about processing deer. They told me there were no restraints, so I placed an ad in the local shopper paper to process deer; I didn’t include anything else in the ad. After I placed the ad other butchers told me that was a big mistake, “You’re gonna be in trouble,” they said. Two days later I got a caller who said, “You cut up beef?” I asked him where he got my name and number, and he said, “From the ad, I figure if you do deer you do beef also.”
I am getting older and I don’t want to handle the big stuff [like large beef animals]. The man said he had four beef, but I was suspicious when he did not identify himself, and I assumed he was from the government. The local butcher told me that if someone does anything, like sell a side of beef, they get a phone call wanting to know who’s processing the beef, where is it coming from, and more questions.
Around the beginning of November a man pulled in at our house one day when I wasn’t home. He asked my wife, Sharon. where I was, but he would not identify himself, and then said he’d be in touch. A week or so later he called back, identified himself as Patrick Cherek, an investigator with DATCP, and told us a specific day and time he would be coming out, and I said I would be there. He didn’t come when he said he would, and we were in the house eating when he finally arrived. We invited him in and said we’re going to finish our dinner. He told me I had to stop any butchering beef and other non-deer animals and asked me about my history as a butcher, which I told him. He referred to the ad I had placed and said it was the first indication he’d had. I said I wasn’t planning to stop – I only cut up meat for friends and neighbors, not for the public. He said he would notify the District Attorney’s office, and that he, Patrick, had never lost a case, then he rattled off some sections of code. “I am ordering you to cease and desist,” he said, and added that he would mail me something, but I never got anything in the mail.
Cherek came back on January 5 . He just pulled in, he hadn’t given prior notice, he had someone with him, and he walked into my butchering shop without knocking. He told me I could not mix someone’s pork and spices with their venison. I told him that back in New York as long as we used USDA approved ingredients it was o.k., so I was surprised at that. The other guy, who had identified himself as Timothy Eddy, was trying to tell me what I had to do to be legal with the shop. A whole list of things. I said I would check into it. Cherek wanted to see everything I had there. I told him, “You aren’t touching a thing until you have papers.” He looked at me like “how dare you talk to me like that,” then went outside and called someone on the phone. He came back in, told me they weren’t going to seize the meat that day, but I could not release the meat in the freezer – that belonged to other people – unless he, Cherek, was there to see them pick it up. I replied, “I don’t think so, how are we supposed to work out for you to be here when they get it?” He answered, “That’s the way it is,” and left.
I started calling around. I called Countryside Magazine to get some information about the law, and they referred me to the University of Wisconsin in Neillsville, who referred me to someone in Madison, Dr. Jeff Sindelar [Assistant Professor /Extension Meat Specialist, Univeristy of Wisconsin]. I called Sindelar that Friday morning and left a message. He called me back Friday evening and told me the men from DATCP had given me wrong information; they were trying to tell me I had to be like a federally licensed processing plant, and that there is an exemption for custom processing. Since that conversation, he would not give any further information when the attorney I later hired called him, saying that it was a DATCP issue and he did not want to be involved any further.
After speaking with Sindelar, I called a neighbor who told me to “call this lawyer” who, for a couple hundred dollars, can get this all straightened out. The neighbor told me to come over and he would take me to the lawyer’s house, which we did, that Friday evening. The lawyer, Alan Billings, told me, “I’ll make a couple calls and get it all worked out.” He told me to go home and not worry about it. He didn’t call back till Tuesday. While I was on phone with Billings on Tuesday, January 10, up came Cherek with a man later identified as Paul Pierce [Chief, Regulatory and Technical Services, DATCP] and a county deputy Sheriff. I have a daughter, 21, who was outside and they asked her where I was. She pointed to me through the door’s window, and the officer approached the door. I went outside to meet him and he asked where is Arlin Bender? I said, “I am he,” and he looked startled, saying he was there with the others. I handed him the phone – the lawyer told me not to make any confrontation. The officer spoke with the lawyer on the phone, I don’t know what was said, then the officer handed the phone to Paul Pierce. Again, I did not know what was said. Then they handed the phone back to me and Billings told me he had told the two men that “we” did not want to have any confrontations, and we ended the phone call. Then I asked the men, “I thought you needed a search warrant to be on private property,” and they said, “Not when there is contraband involved.” I did not know, and still do not really understand what “contraband” is. When they said they wanted to come in to the shop again without a warrant I hesitated. They said, ” We will give you five minutes.” I said I wanted to talk to someone from my church. Pierce said, “We will give you five minutes or we will take this to the District Attorney.” I went into my shop and tried to call my church. I was not able to reach anybody from church. I tried to call my neighbor and left a message on his machine that these men were here, and I thought they going to confiscate his half a beef that was hanging in my walk-in cooler.
I let them into the shop then. They went into the walk-in freezer first and put red tags on all the meat. I said all the meat in the freezer is mine and my son’s. They said it didn’t matter, that they were seizing it all. I said that meat is my son’s. Cherek said it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t live here and he can’t keep his meat here, and Pierce agreed.
They came out of the freezer and went into the walk-cooler and put red tags on all the meat in there as well and told me there was a $5000 fine for each tagged piece of meat that gets disturbed. Two of the lambs that were hanging in the cooler were mine. I figured we would be shutting the freezer and cooler off soon; I was planning to have all the meat cut up that week then shut them both down. I told them the two lambs were mine, and they said, “It doesn’t matter, how do we know it’s yours?” I told them the guts and hides were still out there in the barrel.
They did give me permission then for me to cut up my lambs. The next day, on the 11th, I had a collapse, passed out, not responding to the family, because of the stress. My family took me to the doctor who put me on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication. After I stabilized from the medication, I realized I would not be able to get the other people’s meat cut up before it spoiled, because of DATCP putting the tags on it and my health condition. I called the attorney, Alan Billings and told him to get the meat out, because I did not want to be responsible for it spoiling.
On Friday January, 13th Billings and someone from a licensed butcher came onto the property, with my permission, and took the meat that belonged to other people to the licensed butcher. They took a small beef that was another Mennonite family’s, two hogs, that were someone else’s, and a half beef that was the neighbor’s, and took it all to another butcher. The people picked them up from the other butcher, as far as I know. The attorney had told us they were coming on the 13th and that we should not be there, so we weren’t. We learned what had actually happened from a neighbor who recognized the other butcher’s vehicle. Billings later mailed me a paper that showed it had been signed for by the other butcher.
I called my neighbor to see if he got his meat back He asked me if Billings was working for me or not; Billings had told him that if the place where his meat was taken charges more than I charged I’d have to pay the difference, as though Billings had been working for Cherek and Pierce instead of for me. [Billings declined to comment on this, citing confidentially].
After that we did not hear anything from DATCP for almost three weeks. During that three weeks, I spoke to people active in the food rights movement, called the District Attorney myself, and considered dismissing our attorney. However, before I could contact Billings, he sent me a letter stating that because of me contacting the District Attorney and others that he would no longer provide his legal services for me.
On February 1, we received a call from Paul Pierce that he was going to contact the District Attorney to ask him to file criminal charges against me. He also reminded me that if I removed the tags from the meat I would incur further charges. I responded that he did not need to come back, that the meat was mine and my son’s and he has no jurisdiction over it and that some of the meat they tagged was venison over which they have no control.
We heard nothing further until February 8, when a deputy sheriff again showed up, this time with a notice for me to appear in court on February 13 for a hearing about a temporary restraining order.[End of Arlin Bender’s statement].
Information about farm raids at www.FarmFoodFreedom.org
Should you wish to express yourself, here is the phone number for Ben Brancel, the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture: 608.224.5015