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Taking (Live) Stock 

Book review: Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA's War on a Family Farm, by Linda Faillace

Published October 10, 2006 at 9:50 p.m.

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.

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