It’s the height of summer, and Amos Miller has much on his mind as he surveys the bounty of the land.
The Upper Leacock Amish farmer and proprietor of Miller’s Organic Farm thinks about the field of hay he must bale before an impending thunderstorm arrives. He studies his herd of 45 dairy cows staying cool underneath a grove of trees.
Miller contemplates ongoing food shortages that have hit grocery stores for months around the country.
He also has the looming threat of a possible jail sentence and more than $300,000 in fines in relation to his years-long court battle with the federal government over food safety laws and inspections of his operations.
Miller said federal officials were last on the farm about two months ago, while the government is “holding hostage” his case that’s currently in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and another case making its way through the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
“They’re just playing their difficult games,” Miller said.
Miller’s case has been making its way through the court system since 2016 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a civil action requiring Miller and Miller’s Organic Farm to comply with federal meat and poultry food safety statutes.
The USDA wants Miller to operate under the “Federal Grant of Inspection” before slaughtering, preparing, processing or selling for distribution certain meat and poultry products.
Miller had been slaughtering animals like cattle, chickens and pigs without federal inspections of his operation for several years. He argued that his business model of selling private club memberships to his Miller’s Organic Farm exempted him from federal regulations.
The DOJ won permanent injunctions against Miller in civil actions closed out in March 2017 and November 2019, while the FSIS later found Miller again out of compliance.
Another case was opened in 2021, and Miller was working on the compliance issues. He was eventually forced to stop selling most meat and poultry products earlier this year.
Late in 2021, Miller asked to remove his lawyer, Dallas-based attorney Steven Lafuente, from the case. Judge Edward G. Smith did not accept the motion to withdraw Lafuente.
Miller filed an “interlocutory appeal” with the Eastern District Court on May 10, which was assigned to the Third Circuit Court. In the appeal, Miller challenges Judge Smith’s decision to retain Lafuente as his lawyer.
The appeal charges that Judge Smith determined “that Amos Miller does not have the right to choose his own attorney” and that the decision was made in “error” and that the “judge was acting irrationally and beyond the confines of public policy.”
Miller and his wife, Rebecca, were originally set to appear before Judge Smith on Sept. 26 in the U.S. Courthouse in Easton for a show cause hearing to consider adding Rebecca as a defendant in the case, to examine compliance of paying $305,065 in fines and the possible incarceration of Amos “for his continuing civil contempt, until defendants make such payments.”
On Friday, the show cause hearing was ordered stayed as the Third Circuit Court case makes its way through the system, with Judge Smith “finding that good cause exists” for the delay.
In his motion for a stay of proceedings, Miller argues that the DOJ and Judge Smith violated his rights by threatening in the show cause order to “incarcerate not only Amos Miller but his spouse (an un-named party) to this action.”
“Defendant believes these actions are unconscionable actions that shock the conscience, and if RPII (real party in interest) were not Amish and being restrained by the Amish Elders, greater fear of man’s newspapers than God’s words in the Holy Bible would be actionable sounding in tort,” the motion stated.
Pete Kennedy, a Florida-based attorney who works with the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting food freedom issues, said the Miller case stands as an important benchmark that could have widespread impacts on small farming operations.
“The meat regulations in this country favor the meat packers,” Kennedy said. “In the meantime, many people Amos’s size have gone out of business because of the regulations. People might not agree with the way he’s approaching things, but it’s an important fight. At the least you’d like to come out of this with a more favorable interpretation of the law by the USDA.”
Miller said that it’s the growing regulations that are causing some of the problems in the food supply that have appeared this year.
“One reason the food supply is getting low is because of the regulations that the government is forcing upon us,” Miller said. “They don’t allow farmers to be farmers, and it could run our country into a nightmare or chaos.”
Not being able to sell beef, pork, chicken, turkey and other meat products has impacted his business, Miller said, but it has not slowed its growth. Miller’s Organic Farm has more than 4,000 members across the country, with products being sent to as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
Miller said many farmers who have gone to a model of selling directly to customers have done well in their businesses. He said his business has almost tripled in size since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as customers sought out nutrient-dense foods and using what they eat as an alternative to pharmaceuticals.
“They like the connection and want to be connected to the farm,” Miller said.
Without the support of its members, Miller said, there was a real possibility the farm could disappear. He said it seems like the federal government “want to put them out of business.”
A GoFundMe account was created a few years ago, raising more than $115,000 from supporters to use for the farm’s legal fund. (Funds can now be donated through a GiveSendGo campaign.)
Miller said the farm’s members have also regularly reached out to comment to the government on the operation and to testify their support in court hearings. Miller said he has seen government officials impacted by the support from the community and have displayed unease about reactions from the public regarding the case.
“It’s getting in between the mother and a child by getting in the way of the people’s food supply, and they’re concerned about that,” Miller said.
Miller said his customers are actively seeking animals that are grass fed, regularly out in the fresh air and sunshine and that can enjoy the natural habitat. He said having animals outside in nature creates more nutrient dense and healthy food to consume.
The cows and other animals on the farm have access to alfalfa, hay and additional plants growing in the fields, including grass, herbs, dandelion, and burdock.
“It’s good to have diversity because each plant has its own special nutrition,” Miller said.
Besides the health benefits of allowing the animals to be outdoors, Miller said the farming process is more efficient. Instead of running tractors to harvest large fields of corn or soybeans for feed, the animals are permitted to be outside harvesting their own food by eating grasses and other crops and fertilizing the land with their own manure.
Miller said his members enjoy diverse choices for products, which has also allowed the farm to skirt some of the federal regulations.
Miller started raising water buffalo about five years ago, getting his first herd from animals raised in Arkansas. He said the water buffalo are good animals to breed because they are calm and docile if interacted with from birth, and the meat is a good alternative to beef that is less fatty.
The water buffalo can also be milked for their creamy milk used for traditional mozzarella cheese.
Since water buffalo are listed by the USDA as an exotic animal, Miller said, they are “not in their book to regulate,” allowing him to butcher them on the farm and sell to his customers. He said the water buffalo allow him to keep the meat supply of the farm better stocked.
When asked if there are any discussions in the local Amish or farming community about finding alternative farming methods to remain sustainable, Miller said there are not many talks about seeking replacements. He said most farmers are content to sell their products into the larger agricultural commodity market.
But Miller said with more and more consumers looking to buy directly from the farmers as food shortages become more regular, a new untapped market for producers is being created. He said people are looking to have connections to the people producing their food.
“They don’t trust the large corporations,” Miller said. “It’s not sustainable. For some reason the government keeps endorsing the large corporations, and it can cause big trouble.”
As for his own court case, Miller said if the USDA continues to enforce its regulations like it has done recently, the food supply will continue to get worse. He also said he fears the government is willing to do anything to win the case.
“But the truth will rise to the top,” Miller said. “Time will tell in the end what’s sustainable and what is not.”
Staff writer Michael Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @YoderReports on Twitter.
Michael Yoder is an award-winning journalist who has been honored with several Keystone Press Awards for his investigative pieces. He has been crafting stories for daily, weekly, and monthly publications for more than two decades in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. He has interviewed everyone from Academy Award-winners and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers to presidential hopefuls and members of Congress. Michael was born and raised in Lancaster County and joined The Lancaster Patriot in 2022.