Why the Son of Jasper Hill Has It In for the Greensboro Cheese Operation That Bears His Name | Agriculture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Agriculture

Why the Son of Jasper Hill Has It In for the Greensboro Cheese Operation That Bears His Name

Local Matters


Published August 7, 2013 at 10:00 a.m.

Stuart Hill's home
  • Stuart Hill's home

Stuart Hill readily admits he’s his own worst enemy. He’s angry, foul tempered and pisses people off, including family, friends and government officials who’ve tried to help him.

“I’m not a pretty man, I’m not a wealthy man, and I’m not the best-natured man in the world. But I need water,” Hill explains. “I haven’t had water fit to drink for two years.”

The 52-year-old Greensboro Bend resident has been hauling buckets and milk jugs of water to his house since July 2011. That’s when his neighbors, Andy and Mateo Kehler, ruptured an underground water line while expanding their award-winning cheese-making operation. Hill’s ramshackle home is surrounded by the Kehlers’ growing agribusiness, Jasper Hill Farm, which is on land that once belonged to Hill’s family. But he has retained rights to a spring on the property, and it is his sole water source.

Ordinarily, such a dispute between neighbors would have been resolved amicably, or gone to a mediator or judge. But this fight in the heart of the Northeast Kingdom runs deeper than water: Contrary to popular perception, Jasper Hill isn’t a place but a person — specifically, Stuart Hill’s father. Hill has never forgiven the Kehlers for “stealing” his father’s name for the brand they launched in 2003.

Hill claims that when Andy Kehler asked permission to use the name Jasper Hill, he told the cheese maker he wasn’t comfortable with that idea. Kehler allegedly told Hill they’d come up with a different one.

“My father had a lot of people take advantage of him, and this is one of the things that pisses me off about the Kehlers,” Hill says. “I view them as grave robbers for that.”

Neither of the Kehler brothers would comment for this story. But letters provided by Hill suggest that the Kehlers tried in earnest to make things right with their neighbor.

It all began on July 8, 2011, while Jasper Hill Farm was building a state-of-the-art energy-recovery system to process its dairy and cheese-making waste. Ironically, one justification for building the “green machine,” as it’s called, was to minimize the impact of farm runoff on local groundwater.

During its construction, a contractor punctured a shallow pipe that delivers water from the spring on the Kehlers’ property to Hill’s house. In a July 26, 2011, letter to Hill, the Kehlers apologized and got the line fixed. But Hill claims the repairs were insufficient to prevent the pipe from freezing that December. For months, then years, afterward, Hill told anyone who would listen that the Kehlers’ dairy farm and 22,000-square-foot cheese cellars were contaminating his water, rendering it undrinkable.

Hill’s water went from being potable, according to a 2007 test conducted by the Vermont Department of Health, to containing elevated fecal coliform levels, as three subsequent tests revealed between July and November 2011. But investigators from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets later concluded that the contamination wasn’t caused by Jasper Hill’s dairy operation; the agency said it was symptomatic of shallow springs in Vermont such as Hill’s that are routinely exposed to surface water.

Nevertheless, Hill kept his water fight simmering at a low boil for months, consuming the time and resources of staffers at numerous federal, state and local agencies, including the health and ag departments, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker’s offices, as well as Vermont’s congressional delegation. None was able to resolve the matter to Hill’s satisfaction.

Finally, in a June 7, 2012, email, Gary Kessler, director of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s compliance and enforcement division, notified Hill that its umbrella agency, the ANR, had concluded its investigation and determined that “Jasper Hill Farm had not committed any violation over which ANR has jurisdiction.” Kessler then offered Hill some suggestions for making his spring potable again. When Hill emailed back to complain, demanding a detailed final report on that investigation, Kessler made it clear he was washing his hands of the case — and Hill.

“Just like my investigators, I am very busy,” Kessler wrote in a June 8 email to Hill. “While I have enjoyed our daily email exchanges, I want to let you know in advance that I will no longer be able to respond to your multiple daily email queries, as your complaint has now been closed.”

By mid-2012, nearly everyone who had gotten involved in the Hill case had arrived at the same conclusion. Says Agency of Agriculture spokesperson Alison Kosakowski, “We took his concerns very seriously and investigated them to a very thorough degree ... This is probably a civil matter at this point. We’re not witnessing anything that would be a violation of the regulations.” Translation: Hill could hire an attorney.

But Hill, who now works as a machine operator for a gun-parts manufacturer in Wolcott and until recently lived on less than $10,000 a year, says he can’t afford one.

“Basically, I’ve been put in a situation where I’m on my own, fighting a federal agency, several state agencies and my neighbor,” says Hill. “I’ve had people laugh in my face that I was doing this alone.”

Like Gov. Peter Shumlin and his impoverished neighbor, Jeremy Dodge, the Kehlers and Hill couldn’t be more different from each other in wealth and status. But unlike Shumlin and Dodge, who recently worked out their differences over a controversial real estate deal, Hill seems to be in no mood to mend fences.

The Kehlers are among the young and ambitious agropreneurs credited with breathing new life into the Northeast Kingdom. The Cellars at Jasper Hill website showcases its award-winning cheeses, including its Winnimere soft cheese, which just last week took Best of Show at the American Cheese Society’s annual award ceremony in Wisconsin. The site also offers info on Jasper Hill’s innovative farming practices and links to reviews and articles about its cheeses and the men behind them.

However, the website makes no reference to Jasper Hill the man, a World War II veteran whose post-traumatic stress disorder — in those days it was called “shell shock” — likely ended his life. Finding that story requires a visit to Stuart Hill’s run-down house just across the road.

The contrast between the Hill and Kehler properties perfectly illustrates the culture clash between old and new Vermont. Hill’s house, which is perched on a hill overlooking the new, freshly painted Jasper Hill barn, was built by his great-great-grandfather and looks as though it hasn’t been touched by a paintbrush since. The rusty, weather-beaten metal roof sports a crumbling brick chimney and the twisted remains of an old TV antenna.

In the center of Hill’s yard, overgrown with chest-high weeds, sits a pile of firewood topped by an old hibachi and a rusting 55-gallon drum. Just beyond it is a sagging front porch cluttered with various odds and ends: old shovels, seed starters, a dirty pane of glass, a dusty computer hard drive. A satellite dish mounted on the siding appears to be the only recent improvement to the house. From inside a torn screen door comes the barking of Raphael, Hill’s Shetland sheepdog.

Hill has thinning, disheveled hair, wire-rimmed glasses, a scraggly beard and a wandering eye. He’s missing a front tooth and, when he talks, he often grips his forehead, seemingly in distress or annoyance.

That’s understandable, given his life story. His father, Jasper Hill, acquired the house from his brother, Andrew, in the late 1940s after returning home from World War II. Jasper Hill served in the Pacific theater with a chemical pyrotechnics unit but barely made it home alive.

It wasn’t until years after Jasper Hill’s death that his son learned how his father had survived the war. His unit had gotten pinned down on a small, remote island in the Pacific that was being shelled by Japanese warships. The GIs expected Japanese soldiers to storm the island the next morning and kill everyone on it. But when the sun rose the next day, the ships had miraculously disappeared and Jasper Hill was alive.

Stuart says his father was never the same again.

For a time, Jasper Hill farmed other people’s land in Greensboro but, according to his son, never worked the land that currently bears his name. In the mid-1950s, Jasper Hill was working in a timber mill when he sawed off the fingertips on both hands. The nurse who tended to him, Evelyn Flett, eventually became his wife.

Hill has fond memories of his father, despite the fact that he had a “disposition similar to mine.”

“The combat stress was too much for him,” Hill recalls. “He was a very good guy but very tortured by life.”

Whatever Hill’s relationship might have been with his father, it was cut tragically short. On December 16, 1977, Stuart, then 16, came home to find his father had shot himself in the head.

Hill’s mother, whom he describes as an “old-guard registered nurse” with a “military-like attitude,” worked as an administrator at the Greensboro Nursing Home. Evelyn Hill, who suffered from scleroderma, an autoimmune skin disease, began drinking heavily after her husband’s suicide. A year later, Stuart came home from school one day to find her dead, too.

“She may or may not have killed herself. I was never quite sure,” Hill says matter-of-factly. “It is what it is. I don’t know anything different.”

Stuart Hill’s life had some bright spots. On May 24, 1997, he married Camilla Jean Collier, of Chicago, Ill., at St. Michael church in Greensboro Bend, just down the road from his house. Both Camilla and Stuart shared a love of Shetland sheepdogs.

“It was a marriage made in the American Kennel Club,” Hill jokes, flashing a rare smile. “I had one sheltie, and she had two.”

The couple’s happiness was short lived. On December 19, 2005, Collier-Hill died of heart failure at age 50. Although her obituary says she died unexpectedly, Hill wasn’t surprised, noting that she’d never taken good care of herself and “lived on coffee, cigarettes and junk food.”

Since then, Hill has worked odd jobs, including as a grocery clerk and on a Christmas tree farm. For a time, he had his own computer-repair business but, according to one acquaintance, never made much money at it.

The Hill family roots run deep and wide in Greensboro — a Hill was one of the town’s original 60 pioneering settlers — but in a town of only 425 people, few are comfortable speaking about Stuart Hill on the record.

A rare exception is retired dairy farmer John Stone, who describes Hill as “a very bright guy” with whom he got along and “had no problems as neighbors.” The 82-year-old Stone owned the Hill farm from 1969 until 1999, when he sold about 330 acres to the Kehlers.

Vince Illuzzi, the Essex County state’s attorney and former Republican lawmaker from the Essex-Orleans senate district, occasionally hired Hill to work on his computer. Because Illuzzi served in the Vermont Senate with the Kehlers’ mother, Carolyn Kehler of Pomfret, he tried, unsuccessfully, to mediate a settlement to the water dispute in 2011.

“I thought the simple solution was just to drill Stuart a well,” Illuzzi remembers. “But you ever heard that expression, ‘The guy who tries to break up a fight ends up with two black eyes, not just one?’” Illuzzi hasn’t heard from Hill since. “I don’t know if Stuart is mad at me or not, but I tried.”

Evidently, the Kehlers tried, too. In a three-page letter to Hill, dated July 26, 2011, the brothers apologized for damaging his water line and also pointed out the various gestures they’d made to minimize the impact their cheese-making operation was having on him. They offered to pay Hill’s property taxes in 2003 and 2004; volunteered to dig him a new well in 2006 after their cows drank his spring dry; made overtures about digging him a new water line with an excavator that same year; and said they’d plow his driveway free of charge.

“Our business has grown and in ways that we could never have foreseen when we first started in on this cheese-making adventure,” the Kehlers wrote in 2011 of the 10-year-old dairy operation that now employs 35. “We are no longer just milking 40 cows and making cheese, and I realize that as we have grown there has been an increase in traffic, noise, people and general activity in your backyard.

“I hope we are not moving towards having an antagonistic relationship with you as our neighbor,” they wrote, presciently. “We have never brought up the subject of purchasing your property because we haven’t wanted to make you feel like we wanted you to leave, and we have appreciated you as a neighbor.

“However, if you’re interested in a quieter, more private location,” the Kehlers added, “we would be interested in discussing possible options, including purchasing your property.”

In September 2011, the Kehlers offered, in a letter, to buy Hill’s house for $120,000. Hill, who long suspected the Kehlers of trying to force him out, took it as a threat and immediately rejected it. Then on November 15, 2011, the Kehlers offered to purchase Hill’s spring and water rights for $9480, the amount of one estimate for digging him a new well. Hill rebuffed that, too.

Stone’s hypothesis: “My operation was quite benign, so as far as Stuart was concerned, when I took over, there was very little change,” he says. “So any change in his attitude would simply be because of the change in use.”

What does Hill want from his neighbors?

“Basically, they need to admit wrongdoing. And, I think I deserve to be paid for the misery they’ve put me through,” he says. “And as far as the state goes, there are some people who need to go bye-bye. The same with the USDA.”

Hill insists he’ll never sell out to the Kehlers — even if it means carrying water by the gallon back and forth to his house until the day he dies. As he puts it, “You can get used to almost anything, including hauling water.”