Pig Trouble At Baker’s Green Acres
Feb. 19, 2016A small-time exotic pig farmer battled with the state of Michigan, with mixed results.
At Baker’s Green Acres, a remote 80-acre farm on pristine Missaukee County land, a farmer has taken to YouTube to tell his side of the story: The government is conspiring to drive him out of business.
First, they tried to take away his pigs. Next, they nearly bankrupted him in a protracted legal battle. Finally, he believes state officials are harassing anyone who does business with him.
Mark Baker said stores or restaurants that carry his pork products made from his Mangalitsa pigs have been intimidated by county, state and federal inspectors. Officials deny this. They say Baker’s recent trouble with health regulations is unrelated to an earlier feral pig dispute.
How did things get so bad between the state and a small farmer beloved in culinary circles? That’s a long story.
POLICE AND INSPECTORS ARRIVE
Baker, a 20-year Air Force veteran, said tensions came to a head when inspectors and state police rolled up to his farm in December. The officials had a search warrant to inspect his property.
Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) inspectors said Baker refused to grant entry and they left; Baker said he asked them to wait so he could call witnesses.
Either way, the inspectors left without inspecting the property and now MDARD says Baker’s Acres products are illegal.
For Baker, mistrust has been simmering for years, since an invasive species order was enacted by the Department of Natural Resources in 2011 and officials ordered his pigs destroyed or sold out of state because he had been breeding them with Russian boar hybrids.
Baker, who carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his breast pocket and considers himself an ally of the movement for property rights that led to standoffs in Oregon this year and in Nevada in 2014, believes the conflict is about due process and property rights.
“We’re free men and we own property. That’s the difference between us and the people that live in communist Russia. That sounds pretty radical, but it’s really true,” Baker said.
PHOTO LEADS TO WARRANT
Police and inspectors drove up Baker’s driveway the morning of Dec. 17.
Their warrant stemmed from a photograph that appeared in an article on mynorth.com that showed renowned chef Eric Patterson of the Cook’s House in Traverse City holding a pork leg. The article identified the meat as prosciutto from Baker’s farm.
“It was a photo-op and, the way the story goes is, the people from the health department were going through the online magazine and they saw it and they called him to make sure that it was processed at a USDA plant and he said, ‘Call Mark. Ask him. I don’t know,’” Baker said. “They never called me.”
Instead, they showed up unannounced. Baker wouldn’t say whether that piece of meat was processed at the USDA-certified processor he uses or at his farm, where he is state-licensed to process meat for sale to individuals. He said he wants the inspectors to ask him that question.
“Eric mentioned it to me in a text that somebody was there asking about that ham,” Baker said. “They’d never used it. They’d never cut into it; they’d never served it. He took it home. And then the next thing I know, two cars pull in, two sedans, and then two police cars behind them.”
A PEACEFUL STANDOFF
Baker asked the police if he could remove three of his eight children from the property before the search. Baker’s father-in-law picked up the children, ages 4, 6 and 10.
Baker said he also asked inspectors to wait until his friends arrived from Midland, about an hour away.
“I just told them that they’re going to have to wait and they said okay, but then they decided that they were going to leave, and they just left,” Baker said. “I mean, it was over a picture of a ham that was never served. And, oh, by the way, I’m not the one that did anything wrong. … I could sell him a dead cat if I want to. He brings it to the restaurant, that’s not my problem.”
The visit from the police caused Baker and his wife, Jill, to reconsider what they were doing with their lives. Days later, Baker released a You- Tube video announcing he was going to put the farm he’d owned for a dozen years up for sale. He was rattled by the official visit and said he needed to ensure peace and security for his family.
On Jan. 10, he released a video saying he’d decided to keep the farm and would focus on using it for the benefit of veterans who were struggling to adapt to civilian life.
“I got a phone call from one of my veterans, a younger guy, actually from his mom, and she was kind of in tears about the whole thing, about us leaving, because a farm’s a really good tool for veterans,” Baker said. “It’s not so much me or Jill. It’s the place, the animals and the gentleness of a farm like this.”
PIGS DEEMED ILLEGAL
Baker’s trouble began in 2010 when the DNR issued an invasive species order that put a death warrant on wild boar. The DNR took that drastic step because of the severe environmental harm wild pigs can cause and the risk of them spreading disease to their penned brethren. At the time, it was unclear whether the exotic species of pig Baker raised would fall under that definition. Baker said he was at the Cook’s House when he learned about the order.
“I went up to Eric’s to make a delivery — chicken and mangalitsa pork — to the Cook’s House. He’s my oldest customer in Traverse City and he said, ‘Hey, I just heard about your pigs. They’re illegal now.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ And he says, ‘Yeah. Yeah. The DNR has come out against feral pigs.’” At first, Baker didn’t believe he had anything to worry about. The DNR was talking about wild boars; his pigs were locked up behind fences.
“I thought, ‘that’s not me. These pigs came from Austria,’” Baker said. “These are commercial, high-end, very sought-after pigs. How could they be feral pigs? Just the definition of feral in Webster’s is a pig that’s either abandoned or has escaped.”
Soon, the DNR made it clear they believed Baker’s pigs violated the order.
“They said they are doing it to protect the environment. That’s what they said,” Baker said. “I don’t believe that. I believe that what they want to do is be able to come on my property any time they want to do an invasive species inspection.”
A LAWSUIT FOR CLARIFICATION
Baker sued the DNR because he wanted them to clarify what the order meant. The state attempted to fine Baker $700,000 for the 700 pigs it considered illegal.
Baker believed the lawsuit would prove any pig could be classified illegal.
“We wanted them to say that in a court of law, because that would implicate the pork producers, too,” he said. “We got to within 10 days of trial and they dropped all charges against me.”
That may have looked like state capitulation, but Baker doesn’t see it that way. He believes the state bowed out before they had to admit they overreached.
DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the state dropped its lawsuit when Baker got rid of one pig that was a Russian wild boar. He said the DNR never intended to make mangalista pigs illegal, a claim Baker disputes.
Baker didn’t have to pay that fine for his 700 pigs, but he said the case almost put him out of business, nonetheless.
During the fight, Baker got lots of support.
An online campaign raised more than $65,000, but Baker said he also had to sell most of his cattle to pay for the suit.
“I funded as much of the lawsuit as I could,” Baker said. “I put everything that I have out there. I spent everything that I have — absolutely everything that I have.”
RETALIATION OR REGULATION?
Baker said that, just as the lawsuit drained his bank account, stores and restaurants became afraid to do business with him. Through the fight, he said he had to lay off 10 employees.
Meanwhile, in December, as his farm was visited with a warrant, he said Department of Agriculture officials paid visits to some of his customers. One of them was the Flying Moose in Marquette.
“Now, it’s a fine line. They have a job to do to ensure food safety. I totally understand that,” Baker said in a YouTube video about the inspection of his farm, “but, if I’ve gone outside the white line a little bit, give me a phone call. I mean, we play by the rules. Give me a phone call and we’ll straighten it out.”
Jeremy Poch, owner of the Flying Moose in Marquette, confirmed his business was inspected during business hours in December.
Despite that, he said he wants to continue to carry products from Baker’s Acres like sausages, bacon and ham slices, which he said come from Baker’s USDA-licensed processor. Mangalista pigs are prized for their high fat content.
“His products are the best product I ever had in my life. I’ll tell you that for sure,” Poch said.
IN THE SERVICE OF THE DNR
State officials say the recent inspections have nothing to do with Baker’s fight over the invasive species order. Baker believes DNR officers have covertly searched his farm in the last year. Golder scoffed at that and said there has been no recent investigation of Baker.
“We haven’t had any dealings with Mr.
Baker since early 2014 when the case was dismissed,” Golder said.
MDARD spokeswoman Jenifer Holton said her department’s inspectors showed up at Baker’s Acres in December with a warrant in order to help Baker learn how to run his business in accordance with health regulations.
That prosciutto spotted in the mynorth.com article raised alarm bells that had nothing to do with feral pigs, she said.
“Firms not under direct USDA inspection may not produce and sell processed meat products such as prosciutto to restaurants or grocery stores,” she said. “If the cured meat and sausage products are being offered for sale, they must be produced from animals slaughtered under USDA inspection and, for the cured meat products, only sold to retail customers after variance approval by MDARD.”
Holton said that because the December inspection never took place, products produced at Baker’s Acres are considered illegal.
“I’M JUST TRYING TO RUN A RESTAURANT”
While Baker sees conspiracy in the recent inspections and the warrant, Mike Kolbusz, food sanitarian at the Grand Traverse County Health Department, said the investigation of the ham at the Cook’s House began when he saw a picture of the prosciutto in an article and thought he should check it out.
The prosciutto stood out, he said, because there are no licensed producers in the region for that kind of product. There are maybe a handful of producers in the country, Kolbusz said. Most charcuterie comes from Italy.
“We check sources all the time in restaurants, so whenever we see something, we have to check sources,” he said.
Baker said he believes someone put Kolbusz up to launching the Cook’s House inspection. He wonders why the county doesn’t inspect every piece of food featured in articles.
He said inspectors focus too much on small farms in favor of big agribusiness.
“How many people have died from pork this past year compared to people who have died from spinach?” he asked. “If he’s concerned with the health of the public, why would he be concerned with anything that comes from small farms?” At the Cook’s House, Patterson would like to put the incident behind him.
“I’m just trying to run a restaurant,” Patterson said. “The health department came in and they said I couldn’t use the leg, and that was that. Nothing else has happened outside of that.”