Ethan Abbott, Farming Activist: Anti-GMO Political Prisoner or Combustible Harasser?

Even his supporters admit that Ethan Abbott, the embattled natural farming activist who's been feuding with county authorities on several fronts, has a bit of a temper. But Abbott, 38, who was sentenced yesterday to ninety days in jail and eighteen months of probation in Weld County Court over a 2012 altercation with a neighbor, says that there's more to the case than his orneriness -- that, in effect, he's the one being harassed and set up by influential people with ties to factory farming and fracking.

It's an attitude that the judge who sentenced him finds disturbing. "Mr. Abbott doesn't deal with conflict well," Judge John Briggs told the assembled at Abbott's tense sentencing hearing. "The way that Mr. Abbott perceives things and reacts is not always consistent with reality."

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Abbott disagrees. "I believe there's a lot more to this whole story than people are allowing me to bring out," he says.

Some people who have worked with Abbott consider him to be a gifted and passionate, albeit volatile, proponent of natural farming. He's been heavily involved in the nonprofit Get To Know Your Farmer, which provides consultation and volunteer labor to help small, family-operated farms. He was an organizer of last fall's March Against Monsanto in Denver, hires the homeless to work on his farm projects, has been vocal in the fight against GMOs, and volunteered for the Colorado Foreclosure Resistance Coalition and similar causes.

But Abbott has also had some pungent disputes with other activists as well as landlords. A master plumber, his work as a handyman has been blasted on one website by dissatisfied customers. And he's been involved in a series of disconcerting confrontations with vendors, law enforcement, animal welfare inspectors, and others over his farming operations during the past few years, particularly in Weld County.

Prosecutors say Abbott has been involved in thirty court cases over the past 23 years, facing charges ranging from making "terrorist threats" to obstruction, menacing, and harassment. His public defender says thirteen of those cases were traffic offenses and that eight others ended in his acquittal or dismissal of the charges -- including a recent acquittal on animal cruelty charges. That still leaves three assault convictions as an adult and a pile of civil litigation across five counties.

Yesterday's hearing was the result of events that unfolded nearly two years ago, when a woman named Ellen Kerbs, who lived a mile from Abbott's farm, stopped by to tell him that one of his calves was loose in the road. According to Krebs, Abbott bellowed at her, cursed her and punched out the back window of her vehicle, spraying glass and terrifying her five-year-old grandson, who was in the back seat.

"I went through the most horrifying, scary event of my lifetime," Kerbs told the court. "I saw somebody who was totally unhinged, disturbed."

Abbott admits yelling at Kerbs for ignoring his "no trespassing" signs and entering his house uninvited, but he denies punching out her window. He says she reversed her van into him while he was in the driveway trying to spot the calf, and that it was his head, not his arm, that went through the back window. He says he suffered injuries to his knee, back and head -- and no marks on his hands -- but sheriff's deputies declined to conduct an accident investigation and charged him instead. At trial his own attorney didn't produce any of his medical records, and the jury found him guilty of criminal mischief, harassment and reckless endangerment -- all misdemeanors.

Abbott's statement at sentencing seethed with his frustration at the way the case had been handled. He produced a small pill bottle containing glass fragments that he says were removed from his head. "I've never gone looking for trouble," he told Judge Briggs. "I just want to farm. I do feel that if I go to jail, I am a political prisoner. I believe I would be murdered."

But Briggs wasn't moved by Abbott's claims that he'd been targeted for threats and persecution by the Weld County Sheriff's Office, calling it part of the defendant's "break from reality." In addition to the jail time, he ordered a mental health assessment and anger management classes as conditions of Abbott's probation.

Abbott indicated he would appeal the case. "Weld County has gone after my class of farmer with a vengeance," he says. "They have a huge vendetta against me."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast