by Grace Gershuny
This book relates the dismaying story of the Faillace family's unsuccessful battle with USDA to stop the destruction of a flock of unique and beloved imported sheep. The sheep were carefully researched and selected to introduce high milk producing genetics into the options for sustainable small farm enterprises. The rationale for quarantining and later destroying the flock was the need to protect the public (more importantly, the beef industry) from fears of "mad cow disease," which the government decided might be carried by these sheep. The dust jacket of the book, published by Chelsea Green, describes it as "the unforgettable story of one family's struggle against a bullying and corrupt government agency that long ago abandoned the family farmer to serve the needs of corporate agriculture and the industrialization of our food supply." The book delivers as promised.
Many of us in the Vermont alternative agriculture community have followed this story, and Rural Vermont is credited with helping rally support for the Faillace family. It is an outrageous story, told in the first person by a primary protagonist. Reading it filled me with admiration for the author on several levels. First, she writes well, and was obviously taking very good notes the whole time she was caught up in the events she describes. She has done an excellent job of relating the story on the personal level without making it about her, or even her family or the sheep they struggled so valiantly to save˜the bigger issues and principles are always foremost, most notably her staunch insistence on scientific reason, fairness and truth. She is also scientifically literate, and convincingly builds the case for the utter impossibility of any trace of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease") in the Faillace sheep. Linda and her husband went to great lengths to safeguard against the possibility of scrapie in this flock (the sheep version of BSE), and to document their evidence. One could nit-pick about the barrage of technical details and some self-conscious techniques of scene-setting, but the book is crafted with the skill of a journalist, building the background and connecting the sequence of events, always holding my attention and making me want to read on˜even though I knew what the outcome was.
Linda Faillace's intelligence, courage, integrity and humor shine through her words. Her dedication to her family and parenting skills are remarkable; the story is also a case study of how they used Holistic Management to develop their farm enterprise plan with full participation by all family members, and with each of the three children taking an active role in some aspect of the farm or cheese making business (though I kind of wished that at least one of them was a 'normal' teenager who didn't want to have anything to do with something that his/her parents were involved in). The magnitude of the forces arrayed against the family, and the criminal abuse of power by a handful of USDA officials documented in this book, are enough to convince anyone that the government is not to be trusted—after reading it, a small farmer could be excused for refusing to cooperate with a national animal ID program.
The most remarkable feature of this book, however, is the author's refusal to demonize the bad actors at USDA, to stoop to their level of misrepresentation, or even to exaggerate. The support and good efforts of some officials was acknowledged, although these were few and far between. In all this painful recounting of an incredible nightmare there is no name-calling, no attack on all USDA (or federal government) activities as evil or villainous (except perhaps by the author of the forward, who describes it as a "tale of good and evil"). No call is made for retribution, though justice might include placing public responsibility on those who knowingly falsified information for political ends. The call to action issued in the final pages of the book is not for an attack on the "enemy," but for all of us to channel our outrage towards creation of a better food system. Any activist seeking to promote justice and a better world would do well to emulate this attitude.
Sane sheep, mad people in 'True Story'
The Stowe Reporter
By Shawn Kerivan
October 12, 2006
In the end, the United States government, its canine teeth and bushy tail cloaked with cowhide, was wrong.
In the end, midlevel bureaucrats seeking to advance themselves squashed Linda Faillace’s dream of a sheep dairy farm.
In the end, the sheep died, and the only madness found was allowed to live on in the form of an apathetic, ignorant government.
To call “Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA’s War on a Family Farm,” by Linda Faillace, a cautionary tale would be a mistake. It reads more like a journal, full of honesty and imperfection that render it too real. Linda Faillace’s recounting of her family’s failed attempt to import dairy sheep from Europe tells the story of a thousand American dreams, a story of sacrifice and accomplishment, of faith and hard work. But it also tells the story of a bogeyman, and in the final act, when Vermont’s congressional delegation banded together to stand behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s condemnation of the Faillace flock, we discover that the bogeyman is “We, the People.”
That’s not how Linda, her husband, Larry, and their three children — all of them prominent players in this tragedy — envisioned things when they set out to create a new kind of farm. Inspired by their time living in England, where Dr. Larry Faillace worked as a research scientist at the University of Nottingham’s School of Agriculture, the Faillaces discovered that the varieties of sheep used for milking by the English and Europeans — East Friesians — produced nearly ten times the amount of milk per lactation as did American varieties. And, like millions of Americans before them, they saw a way to combine their passion with their business. They bought sheep, and with the help of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office, among others, imported them to Vermont.
But within two years, things began to sour for the Faillaces. The USDA, in the form of its senior staff veterinarian, Dr. Linda Detwiler, informed the Faillaces that the agency was concerned their sheep had come in contact with contaminated feed, and were susceptible to BSE — mad cow disease. The USDA wanted the flock surrendered immediately.
The Faillaces never seemed to recover from that initial blow. Assaulted by an alphabet soup of government agencies, stalked and harassed by low-level dupes, and finally abandoned by their own representatives, the Faillaces never actually thought they’d lose their sheep until the animals were marched off to be slaughtered. And, in the final irony, they were eventually discovered to be disease-free.
What the Faillaces never considered as this tragedy unfolded was the public’s hypersensitivity to health scares. At a time when news reports of mad cow disease in England were making its big splashes across American television screens, they were importing sheep — ruminants — from Europe. They attempted a complicated, intricate operation, replete with international machinations, regulations and bureaucratization. And they pulled it off. For that, they’re to be admired.
But while their ideas were sound and the potential was both huge and rewarding, they bore their fruit into a toxic atmosphere, devoid of much public and private sympathy for their project. For most people, their tragedy simply played out on the evening news alongside myriad others that day. Like sheep, the public went along with the flock.
In writing this book, Faillace chose to tell things from her own point of view, and that lends the book its emotional immediacy, infecting the reader, drawing the story closer to home. But that choice also opens the author up to all the subjective pitfalls of the first person. Every mistake she makes hits harder, and her innocence, endearing and inspirational in the beginning, becomes painful to watch, until the author finally breaks down. It’s gut-wrenching.
The lessons of this book have little to do with sheep farming, and lots to do with us as a people. Our government derives its weaknesses, as well as its power, from us, and only through an intelligent and informed engagement can we control it, make it just.
The quote by Thomas Jefferson that leads off this book contains a prescient message, applicable not only to the Faillace’s story, but to the events unfolding day by day around us: “When the government fears the people, you have liberty. When the people fear the government, you have tyranny.”
Taking (Live) Stock
by Sally West Johnson
October 11, 2006
Five years ago, the Faillace farm in Warren made national headlines when federal agents seized the family’s flock of sheep — the government suspected the animals might have been exposed to deadly mad cow disease. The animals’ one-way trip to the slaughterhouse culminated a bitter, three-year battle between a Vermont farm family and the USDA. During that time, accusations of lying and deceit had flown thick and furious on both sides. The conflict grabbed the attention of a nation that was already terrified by the outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain, but also worried that the government might be trampling on the rights of the Faillace family.
Now, five years later, Chelsea Green has published Linda Faillace’s, Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA’s War on a Family Farm, a book about her family’s experiences. In a time when fears of food contamination run rampant, the book gives us the producers’ side of the story, and suggests that the government’s attempts to “protect” us may be dangerously misguided.
Although Faillace has no experience as a writer, she tells her story in a clear, engaging manner that draws the reader into the life of a family and a community. At the same time, she convincingly portrays a massive and immovable bureaucracy that was intent, in her view, on sacrificing a couple of hundred sheep to avoid casting any suspicion on the U.S. meat industry, and in particular on beef and beef products, which account for millions of dollars in exports.
This book never pretends to be an arm’s-length, objective look at the facts. It’s the testimony of an angry woman who witnessed the near-destruction of her family and its livelihood in a Kafkaesque chain of events, some of which bear an uncanny resemblance to the events preceding September 11, 2001, and other recent national catastrophes. Faillace makes a strong case that the federal government withheld information that did not support its goal of destroying the sheep. The tale she tells is one of duplicity, of science corrupted to serve the purposes of politics. You don’t need to understand all the science — and there is a lot of science in these pages — to come away from the book with a weary sense of déjà vu at the behavior of the government bureaucrats, who, says Faillace, sometimes gave out one set of facts in the morning and contradicted themselves in the afternoon.
The story begins in the mid-1990s, when Larry Faillace, a doctor of animal physiology, gave up a teaching job at the University of Nottingham to return to the United States and start a business with his family — Linda, Francis, Heather and Jackie. They chose Vermont as their home and planned to create a “dream team” of sheep bred for meat, milk and breeding stock. Unlike the Merino flocks of the 19th century, which were used primarily for wool, these multipurpose sheep had the potential to introduce a new, viable form of agriculture to the state.
In 1998, the USDA showed up on the Faillaces’ doorstep. The agents expressed concern that the imported sheep might have been exposed to a variant of a class of diseases called TSEs, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, the most notorious of which is the bovine variety known as “mad cow disease.” The disease, properly known as BSE, gained worldwide notoriety in 1986, when it was discovered in the U.K. By 1993, it reached epidemic proportions, resulting in the deaths of more than 50 people.
That crisis precipitated the “war” of the author’s subtitle, which culminated in 2001 when the USDA seized the Faillaces’ 125 sheep, along with a flock belonging to Houghton Freeman (of the Freeman Foundation) in Greensboro. Both flocks were destroyed, Faillace contends, before the government offered conclusive proof that any of the sheep were sick.
Faillace tells her story chronologically, weaving together chapters of human drama with passages detailing the arcane science of testing for a disease that is poorly understood, especially with regard to its ability to jump species. The human part is effective: A family with three small children finds a home in Vermont, scours Europe and New Zealand to locate exactly the right sheep, and then builds a true family business. Son Francis acts as pasture manager, daughter Heather is mother to the flock, and daughter Jackie becomes a skillful cheesemaker who, under the tutelage of Belgian cheesemaker Freddie Michiels, produces artisanal cheese under the label Three Shepherds of the Mad River Valley. Readers who enjoy this story may find it more difficult to slog through the pages and pages of science. Still, those technical explanations are essential to a book that accuses the federal government of lying and the state government of standing idly by as events unfolded.
Parts of this story have elements of comic opera. Federal agents skulk around the back roads of Warren trying not to draw attention. The national media alight in town, causing a Vermont version of gridlock. Angry protesters spraypaint trees with the words “USDA lies” for the benefit of the photographers.
At the heart of the story, though, is a family that feels betrayed by its government, three children who are devastated by the loss of both their sheep and their belief in the basic fairness of things, and a system that appears incompetent at best. That system is epitomized in the person of Dr. Linda Detwiler, the USDA’s former resident expert on TSEs and the person Faillace singles out for particular blame because, Faillace believes, she was willing to do the government’s dirty work by scapegoating the Vermont sheep.
The author’s ending manages to embody a sense of hopefulness while avoiding sentimentality. The hard finality of the slaughter is softened by a portrait of a community — whether defined by geography or friendship — that pulls together in times of hardship. The Faillaces live in both the community of Warren and the broader community of friends and sheep people. It’s that support which enables them to think positively about their future, even after the flock they worked so long and hard to build is dead.
The USDA's War on a Family Farm
By Chris Walters
Most people remember the character of Inspector Javert, the policeman in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables whose relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean makes a hash of justice, fairness and decency. Hugo's point is impossible to miss: Javert's mania for the letter of the law is a kind of madness that moves him to murder its spirit.
The Faillace family had the misfortune of attracting their very own Javert in 1998, when Larry and Linda, who bred and raised sheep with the help of their three children, were asked to meet with a USDA functionary. They assumed it was something to do with scrapie prevention. The Faillaces had cooperated with the national effort to wipe out the brain-wasting disorder - a prion disease in the same class as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow disease - when they endured years of agonizing regulatory delays while assembling their herd of rare sheep, bred from imported livestock. Taking no chances, they went the USDA one better by nudging state agriculture officials to activate Vermont's scrapie prevention program, which until then had existed only on paper.
Linda Faillace remembers thinking cheerful thoughts about the person they were to meet, a senior staff veterinarian with the USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service named Linda Detwiler, who was known for her involvement with the sheep industry.
"Now she was coming to see our operation, I told Larry, to congratulate us on doing such a great job: importing excellent, healthy sheep from Europe and New Zealand, getting the scrapie program up and running in Vermont, and stimulating the sheep industry, particularly the dairy sheep sector. But Larry disagreed. Something was niggling at him. 'This does not feel good,' he said."
Larry might have suspected that no good deed goes unpunished. Nevertheless, the real topic of the meeting came as a shock. Detwiler informed the Faillaces that the USDA believed their sheep might be harboring a variant of BSE, and they would have to suspend operation immediately. The implications were dire. An infected herd would have to be destroyed, and with it would go the family's fortunes as well as their emotional attachment to animals that were never raised for slaughter. The Faillaces reminded Detwiler that no sheep anywhere in the world had ever been found carrying a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy other than scrapie; moreover, they kept detailed records of every sheep's entire lifespan which proved that the USDA's claim was not only unlikely but impossible. Detwiler said she had information she could not divulge.
With that, the Faillaces were plunged into the American version of your basic Kafkaesque nightmare. By the time their worst fears had come to pass with the seizure of their flock early in 2001, they were lied to, spied on by federal agents, and run through a legal wringer. The USDA secured its final victory with the aid of a researcher whose laboratory was later exposed as a filthy mess, overrun with uncaged research mice.
Larry and Linda Faillace had devoted their lives to raising happy children and fine animals. If they had been cynical people or at least schooled in bureaucratic warfare, they would have hired a fierce practitioner of Washington, D.C., blood sport the day after that first meeting, and they might have prevailed. As it was, they fought the agency with skill and persistence that must have surprised Detwiler, her unseen superiors, and the business interests that manipulate the USDA from the shadows.
The agency had picked a fight with the wrong couple. Larry had a Ph.D. in animal physiology and Linda knew TSEs from her experience working as an assistant to a British scientist in the early '90s, when Larry taught at the University of Nottingham. They knew the horror of the British Mad Cow epidemic at first hand, they knew the USDA's safeguards against BSE were grossly inadequate, and they had every reason to believe the agency was engaged in covering its bases, to use the polite term. But they never reckoned on the malign nexus of Detwiler's personal ambition, the ethical squalor of an agency that had spent decades collaborating with the industry it was supposed to regulate, and the current bureaucratic police state. The story behind the USDA's vendetta remains untold as the Faillace's lawsuit against the agency goes into discovery. Doubtless it will confirm the pithy words of another French writer, Honor é de Balzac: "Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies."
This is an infuriating book in many respects. Although Linda Detwiler has gone on to a career consulting for fast food chains, the usual gang of idiots is still in charge at the USDA. But it is also a compelling book, because Linda Faillace never lets her anger interfere with her careful rendering of the facts. She's a born storyteller who might consider a sideline as an author of political thrillers - Mad Sheep is one of those books that makes going to sleep at a decent hour unthinkable.
September 15, 2006
If this were a novel, you probably wouldn’t believe it. But the story of a Vermont farming family driven out of business by a government agency is true—and truly frightening. When the Faillaces (author Linda and her husband, Larry) went into the sheep-farming business, they followed every USDA guideline. Then, once their operation was running, that same agency told them their sheep would have to be destroyed because they might spread “mad cow” disease. Despite the Faillaces’ abundant proof that their sheep were disease free—and, moreover, posed no risk whatsoever—the USDA forcibly shut the farm down. The agency’s actions ultimately had nothing to do with the health of the Faillaces’ sheep but much to do with the health of the American beef industry, which could be adversely affected if people believed there was mad cow in the U.S. The author has every right to be bitter, but she maintains an even tone, presenting us with the evidence and letting us see what happened and why. But if you can read the book without getting mad, you’re not reading it carefully. —David Pitt
Sheep farmer writes about losing her flock
New book recounts USDA seizure in East Warren
By Monica Mead
September 3, 2006
WAITSFIELD – The book "Mad Sheep" is a saga of love, government conspiracy, civil disobedience and the power of community and family. It's fodder worthy of a best-selling novel.
But when Linda Faillace sat down to write a memoir about the events in 2001 that led to the federal seizure of her family's sheep, she wasn't motivated by fame or fortune. Her impetus was purely personal.
"Basically, Larry (my husband) had said I'd gotten too difficult to live with," Faillace recalled. "He said, 'You really gotta do something.'"
So she set to work putting their story on paper, as much for her own peace of mind as for posterity. And now, just five years after the USDA forcibly removed the couple's 125 sheep on their 90-acre homestead in East Warren, Faillace has a book in hand that details the family's struggle for answers.
In "Mad Sheep," Faillace writes that they still don't know why their flock was targeted by the USDA for testing for the rare brain-wasting disease known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Since the seizure and subsequent liquidation of the flock at a laboratory in Ames, Iowa, government scientists have determined that none of the sheep had TSE, a condition related to mad cow disease. The Faillaces meanwhile, lost all hope of fulfilling their dream of sheep farming and producing artisanal sheep-milk cheese.
After years of uncertainty and struggle, writing the book was, Faillace says, "really healing."
Chelsea Green Publishing kicked off a national book tour for "Mad Sheep" last week at Waitsfield's Inn at the Round Barn. The barn's renovated interior was adorned with enormous protest posters that read "Crimes of the USDA," "Unwarranted Search & Seizure Perjury," "Never Forget" from that cold day in March 2001 when the community rallied around the Faillaces as dozens of federal agents descended on their homestead.
Today, the Faillaces' farm animals consist of a couple of American sheep, a flock of geese and a dog. They have no plans to farm again, and their lives have changed dramatically. The family now runs a country store specializing in local foods.
Because of the publicity surrounding their case, which went on for several years, the Faillaces have come to symbolize the "average Joes" fighting Big Brother-style, heavy-handed government interference.
"It's more than a tale of government conspiracy," said Joerg Klauck, who attended the book tour kickoff and has supported the Faillace family's ongoing struggle. "It's a tale about this family and about their children and how they worked together against all of this."
The couple's son, Francis Faillace, who recently graduated from St. Lawrence University, is featured prominently in his mother's memoir. Wounds from those days run deep for the 22-year-old.
He said a reporter asked which chapter was the most important to read. "I asked my mom, and she said, 'read Seizure,' so I told him. I picked up the book to read (the chapter) before I went to work this morning, and I didn't get far before I had to put it down."
Francis, like his siblings, Heather, 20, and Jackie, 19, were all involved in the sheep operation. When the USDA came to the family farm on March 23, 2001, to remove the flock with the aid of 27 armed federal agents, 13 government officials, one bulldozer and an ambulance, the Faillaces lost not only 125 livestock and a dream to make high-quality cheese, says Francis, but 125 friends as well.
"It's a chapter in my life that I don't want to revisit," he said.
Of the two sheep breeds they tended, East Friesian and Beltex, Linda admits she had a soft spot for the latter. "They looked like little pigs when they were sheared," she said. "We'd have people stop near the farm and ask about the sheep and the pigs."
Linda Faillace said the Beltex are an especially friendly breed, and one ram in particular, Moe, was a frequent companion. "He hung out with me a lot."
The Faillaces bottle fed the lamb after he was shunned by his mother and put him on the sun porch where he kept company with the family's pet rabbit and guinea pig.
Like the rest of the herd, all of which were given congenial names like Kanga, Upsala and Mrs. Friendly, Moe was taken to Iowa and destroyed.
Though the event left an indelible mark on the family, they have moved on.
The Faillaces started a new family enterprise, a country store called The School House Market, after they stopped farming. The store specializes in Vermont-produced goods.
Larry and Jackie, who became a proficient cheese maker at age 11, teach cheese-making classes at the store and produce curd under the name Three Shepherds' Cheese.
Jackie and Heather both attend Middlebury College on full scholarships. Francis, Linda said, left with a healthy dose of skepticism for government, and decided to major in political science.
Linda is readying for a whirlwind book tour as far afield as Washington, D.C., and Oregon. In a small, rented space in Waitsfield, away from day-to-day pressures, Faillace put angst to page starting in March last year. The memoir traces her life from her work as a lab assistant to British doctor Eric Lamming, whose research focused on BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease), to the unrelated, much-publicized USDA seizure of the family flock less than 10 years later.
"Ignorance is very comfortable," she said, recalling that being well-armed with knowledge of BSE and animal science (husband, Larry, has PhD in animal physiology) did little to prepare her for the reality of bureaucracy.
"With everything, with the current climate with the government and the abuse of citizens' rights and learning about the politics of food," she said, "I want peoples' eyes open."
Faillace says the government abuses she writes about have little to do with political affiliation and much to do with self-serving mid-level bureaucrats and corporate interests taking precedence over the rights of small farmers and citizens.
"My goal is to get the local movement out on a broader scale, so we'll have these little interconnected pods of folks all over the country exchanging information."
Linda says she still doesn't know why the family herd was targeted and who was behind it. "We don't have any concrete answers and plenty of theories," she said.
One of the main antagonists in Faillace's book, the USDA senior staff veterinarian at the time, Dr. Linda Detwiler, has since resigned and now consults for Wendy's and McDonald's, Faillace said.
Standing in front of friends, fans, and family at last week's book-tour sendoff, Faillace blushed and flashed a radiant grin as she told the crowd about a movie deal under discussion. "We'll get you the details as time goes on," she said.
As the new author stood under a spotlight a simple white poster with moss green block letters outlined in black became visible: "Moe Lives."