Saturday, May 25, 2024

Dairy Farmers Jailing Questionable

The Biden administration’s increasing scrutiny of farmers has led to a particularly noteworthy case in central Pennsylvania, involving a couple of dairy farmers.

Three weeks ago, two farmers were arrested and placed in jail. Ethan Wentworth of Airville, York County, and Rusty Herr of Christiana, Lancaster County, have been in their respective county prisons since April 10 and 11. Herr and Wentworth run NoBull Solutions, LLC., a breeding company that helps dairy farms with cattle reproductive management.

Brook Duer, who works as a staff attorney at the Penn State Center for Agricultural and Shale Law, has been closely monitoring the case. He notes that many people in the agricultural industry are familiar with Wentworth and Herr, as there have been previous complaints against them for allegedly practicing veterinary care without a license.

Here is the first point of contention. The case against NoBull Solutions involves allegations that the company’s founders, dairy farmers, were performing ultrasounds on other farmers’ cows without proper licensing, a procedure common for farmers to use for various reasons.

Newly released court documents from the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reveal that the real reason behind the imprisonment of Herr and Wentworth was not what was previously speculated. The case was initially sealed due to an ongoing investigation by a state agency. The state had requested the case to be sealed in 2021 to protect the privacy rights of Herr and Wentworth in case they were found not to be involved. The judge ruled that making the case public could have endangered the progress or outcome of the investigation.

The state of Pennsylvania’s investigation resulted in officials demanding that the two turn over their records.

The report notes that when they failed to do what state officials demanded, contempt orders were issued against the men. The state’s court officials stated that there is no option for bail and no “sentencing hearing” required for contempt charges. Authorities simply arrest the suspects and jail them, the report said. Eventually, a judge signed arrest warrants for the two with orders to jail them in their respective counties, and those warrants were executed in April.

Their lawyer, Robert Barnes, stated, “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.” Barnes, the attorney representing both men, has claimed they are being held illegally. 

Duer says the court documents show otherwise. “Certainly, the processes most attorneys are familiar with in regard to civil contempt are all there and were followed.”

He went on to explain:

“There was plenty of due process here. It’s an unfortunate result, it’s probably best summarized by this is what happens when you disagree with something at some point in a state process, legal proceeding like this, but you don’t just ignore it. You do that at your own peril, and now we see what the peril can be. They had not only a few opportunities to prevent this kind of an outcome, but those opportunities were multiple and spread over many years.”

However, Barnes issued a statement in defense of his clients:

“This is an unlawful civil contempt order. There are certain procedures that must be followed in a civil contempt action and to our knowledge those were not followed here. Even if they had been followed, the maximum allowable punishment is 15 days in jail which must be conditional, with keys to your own jail cell, meaning there is a condition you can meet to immediately end your incarceration. None of that is true in this case.

The state claims this is a punishment for not complying with a subpoena to turn over documents, but an agency can’t just order anyone to turn over any document they please. For a subpoena to be valid, the jurisdictional validity of the subpoena must be established, and it has not been in this case. Both men had sought the advice of an attorney regarding the case and had been told that the Veterinary Medical Board had no jurisdiction over them, that the subpoena was, therefore, invalid, and that there was nothing Ethan and Rusty needed to do.

There is no evidence that Ethan or Rusty ever saw the order the state claims to have mailed to them last August which threatened them with arrest if they did not comply. Ethan and Rusty were unaware that this was a possibility. It was a complete shock to them and to their families when they were arrested.

Our clients were denied the ability to see the case against them or NoBull Solutions because the State had the docket sealed and hidden, a highly unusual move. If Ethan or Rusty searched for the case against them, they would have found nothing. Why would the state hide the case in this way if they really wanted our clients to engage and resolve the case? It gives the appearance that the intent was to secretly establish an excuse to arrest them and shut down NoBull Solutions without due process.”

I am no lawyer, but if the procedure of taking ultrasounds is a common occurrence, what is the real issue here? If the only issue is obtaining a license, hopefully since it’s something important to the dairy farmers, the license is inexpensive.

The other issue is, how is it legal to jail someone without a sentencing hearing and no bail option? Farming is a necessary, but very tough profession. The hours are long, and in many cases, the results of your labors are not in your hands. Weather, feed prices, and other issues may be beyond your control.

I hope things turn out well for these two farmers. Their crime, if there is a crime,  does not appear to be one of maliciousness, and with every type of farming, we need all hands on deck.