Over the last few years, Jerry Ireland has raised his public profile through his nonprofit, United Farmer Veterans.

The rapidly growing organization – which helps veterans learn to farm, make connections and sell their products – has expanded to include a co-op, an affiliated butcher shop and, soon, a network of markets where farmers can sell their products. His work has earned him praise, especially among veterans, as well as photo ops and face time with Gov. Paul LePage and members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

In March he registered as a Republican candidate for the Maine House of Representatives. With his name recognition and background, he appeared to be a strong candidate. Another Republican who had been in the race even agreed to step aside.

But in the town of Swanville, just north of Belfast, where he lives on a farm with his wife and daughter, people have seen a different side of Ireland, one that has been unpredictable, volatile and contemptuous of authority.

Some of that spilled into public view in late March when state animal welfare agents, armed with a warrant, searched Ireland’s farm. They found 12 pigs that had been killed and buried in shallow graves on the property. A 13th pig, drastically underweight, was seized.

Ireland was charged in May with 13 counts of animal cruelty, to which he pleaded not guilty – but that case is not his only legal problem.

Also in May the town sued him for failing to comply with ordinances related to construction at his farm.

He has been arrested twice in a nine-month period for failing to appear in court on an April 2017 charge of driving with a suspended license. He was due back in court last month.

Collectively, these issues threaten to tarnish the legacy he has built.

David Schofield, Swanville’s code enforcement officer, who tried to work with Ireland on violations prior to the recently filed lawsuit, called Ireland “unstable.”

“I won’t go out there anymore without a police escort,” he said. “He’s a bad dude.”

Even those who have supported Ireland are looking for answers.

J.P. Espinosa, a member of United Farmer Veterans since the beginning, reached out to Ireland recently on Facebook.

“As a fellow veteran and friend, I am concerned about these allegations,” he said, referring to the animal abuse charges. “I have talked with several people who invest in the UFV community, and they are concerned as well.”

Ireland declined several requests for comment about his legal difficulties.

•••••

Heidi Blood, Swanville’s animal control officer, said she had been warned about Ireland by local residents when she took over the job last year.

She said those warnings proved appropriate: Ireland was combative and uncooperative from the first time she responded to neighbors’ complaints about his treatment of animals.

“He has this mentality that he’s above the law,” Blood said.

Working with state animal welfare agents, she sought to investigate the treatment of pigs at Ireland’s farm in Swanville, a few miles from downtown Belfast. After trying unsuccessfully for weeks to work with Ireland, they obtained a search warrant and visited the farm March 28. That’s when they discovered the buried pigs that had been killed.

Swanville farmer Jerry Ireland feeds his pigs in this file photo from the summer of 2015. In March, state animal welfare officials investigating complaints about Ireland discovered a dozen pigs had been killed and buried at the farm, leading to charges of animal cruelty later in the spring. Through his attorney, Ireland has pleaded not guilty in Belfast District Court.

Liam Hughes, the state’s animal welfare director, said the case is highly unusual.

“It is legal for owners to euthanize animals as long as it’s done humanely,” Hughes said. “That’s not the crime. But killing animals and then burying them when we wanted to talk to him, that was suspect.”

Hughes said there have been complaints about Ireland dating back to late 2017.

“Resources were offered to him at the time,” he said. “As we continued to monitor the situation, things did not improve and he refused contact.”

A little over a month after the search, on May 7, Ireland was issued a summons for 13 counts of animal cruelty. One pig, found alive but malnourished on his property, was seized and is now in the custody of another farmer.

Ireland, through his attorney Hunter Tzovarras, pleaded not guilty to those charges in Belfast District Court on May 24. Tzovarras said last week that he plans to file a motion to suppress the search warrant on his belief that there wasn’t enough probable cause to grant it.

Julie Ann Smith, director of the Maine Farm Bureau, said the allegations against Ireland related to his farm are troubling. She also said what has been described – both Ireland’s alleged treatment of animals and his refusal to cooperate with authorities – does not match standard animal husbandry practices.

Mark Wellman, chief marketing officer for Ireland’s nonprofit organization, United Farmer Veterans, called the allegations “false and absurd.

“At this time the only comment we care to make is that we know the man and his family, his honorable service to our country, and the tremendous leadership and kindness he has shown and provided to Maine veterans,” Wellman said.

•••••

Four days after he was first charged with animal cruelty, Ireland, along with his wife, Emily, was served with a lawsuit by the town.

In late 2016 as part of his ongoing effort to assist veterans, Ireland had announced a plan to build 300 cottages on farms across Maine where veterans could live. He built the first on his own property.

But town officials said he didn’t obtain the proper permits. As with the animal cruelty investigation, townspeople said they tried to work with Ireland but that he refused.

“He just doesn’t follow the rules,” said Schofield, the code officer.

On one occasion, Schofield said, Ireland met him on his property with a shotgun. On another, he said, Ireland came close to striking him with his vehicle.

Those two instances were what prompted Schofield to avoid interacting with Ireland unless a police office was present. He hasn’t had to go back.

But even interactions with police officers seem not to concern Ireland.

Last year he was stopped in Hampden for operating with a suspended license, a minor charge. But he failed to appear in court and was arrested two months later and charged with failing to appear. Then he failed to appear again and was arrested in Orland on March 28.

During the second arrest, police were notified that Ireland was delivering pigs to someone in Orland. That person was concerned that Ireland might not agree to whatever transaction had been worked out, police said, and wanted police to know Ireland was there in case anything happened.

Police ran Ireland’s name and saw the warrant.

The behavior seemed unusual for someone with Ireland’s profile, especially since only two weeks earlier he had filed paperwork with the state ethics commission to be a Republican candidate for the Legislature. He was running to replace outgoing Rep. James Gillway in House District 98, representing his town of Swanville as well as Frankfort, Searsport and Winterport in Waldo County.

However, after he was questioned by a Maine Sunday Telegram reporter last month, Ireland said in an email that he’s just a placeholder candidate and therefore not a public official who should be subjected to scrutiny. A placeholder candidate is someone who is willing to collect enough signatures – in this case 25 – to be put on the ballot but who expects to be replaced before the election.

That initially was news to Michael Cunningham, who chairs the local Republican committee, and to Brian Kresge, who had been a Republican candidate in that district but stepped aside so Ireland could run uncontested.

Cunningham, after speaking with a reporter at length about Ireland, later said that he took Ireland at his word that he was indeed a placeholder candidate, although it’s not clear what changed.

•••••

Since he started United Farmer Veterans of Maine in 2015, Ireland has discussed his military service and resulting post-traumatic stress disorder as a way of explaining how he got into farming.

Ireland has offered conflicting details about his military service to the Portland Press Herald. Several news stories about Ireland dating back to 2015 indicate he served overseas in Afghanistan or Iraq, or both, and he has spoken at length about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to his service.

Other news outlets have published similar accounts of his military service.

His official military record, however, shows no evidence of overseas service. Ireland told the Press Herald that his service record has been mischaracterized in the media, and that his official military record contains inaccuracies and does not include classified missions. But he would not answer questions to detail his service or clarify any inaccuracies.

•••••

Ireland has plenty of supporters, largely through his veteran connections.

After the animal cruelty allegations surfaced, many veterans posted on his Facebook page and on the page of United Farmer Veterans that they believed he was unfairly targeted.

Others are wary of him.

When Ireland first started the farming nonprofit, it was affiliated with a national group – the Farmer Veterans Coalition. That partnership didn’t last long.

Michael Gorman, the national group’s director, said Ireland was initially gung-ho but then became increasingly skeptical.

“He thought I was making too much money and had other misconceptions about what we do,” Gorman said. “We have heard good things about his group and what they’ve done.”

Ireland wanted to end the affiliation, and Gorman said he didn’t see the need to fight it.

Stan Moody runs a nonprofit – Columbia Street, which assists prisoners with re-entry into society – that shares office space in Bangor with United Farmer Veterans. Moody said he doesn’t know what to make of the accusations against Ireland.

“It seems to me in working with Jerry over the last couple years that he’s somewhat erratic in his behavior,” Moody said.

Ireland founded the nonprofit three years ago, but it wasn’t incorporated until last year and no tax records were publicly available as of last week. The organization provides resources and networking to veterans who want to start farms and has built a strong reputation, particularly within the veteran community.

But the recent investigation into Ireland’s own farm has created problems for the organization, said Donovan Todd, who was brought in as the first executive director this year.

Todd said he believes Ireland will be exonerated of the animal cruelty charges and declined to comment further on that. He did say that sponsors and donors have been asking questions about Ireland. He also stressed that United Farmer Veterans is “more than just Jerry Ireland.”

First National Bank, headquartered in Damariscotta, donated $25,000 to the organization this year and was named its first “community director.” Tony McKim, the bank’s president, also joined the UFV board.

After the animal cruelty allegations surfaced, McKim said he stepped back from the board and asked the organization to remove the bank’s name from its website.

 

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