Passions have flared since the state put the kibosh on a series of raw-milk-processing classes last week. Even though a solution is in the works, the shutdown highlights a schism in the cheese-making community.
On February 10, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets sent a warning letter to Rural Vermont, an advocacy organization that for 18 months has been holding workshops to teach people to turn raw milk into cheese, butter and baked goods. In the letter, dairy-section chief Dan Scruton asserts that the workshops violate the 2009 “raw milk act,” which dictates that raw milk can only be sold for liquid consumption.
Scruton says the problem lies in the way the workshops were advertised — they appeared to promote the sale of raw milk for use in processing, which is prohibited.
Yet the core issue is broader, according to one local cheese maker.
“Whether it’s the banking system or the food system, having a clear and consistent set of rules is important,” says Mateo Kehler, co-owner of the Cellars at Jasper Hill and Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro “What we’re concerned about is, these workshops are spawning a group of cheese makers that exist outside of the current regulatory system. If you’re teaching people to make cheese, and the natural evolution is some commercial activity without really engaging in the food safety or risk management that needs to coincide with this, people are going to get sick.”
Raw-milk sales have been rising sharply in Vermont. According to a Rural Vermont report, sales grew by 23 percent from 2009 to 2010. A gallon of raw milk can sell for two or three times the price of pasteurized milk.
Kehler has no issue with people wanting to make raw-milk cheese and butter at home, but he asserts that raw-milk cheeses from unlicensed facilities have been showing up for sale at farmers markets. That can put the artisanal-cheese sector at risk, particularly at a time when it is under increased scrutiny from the federal Food and Drug Administration. Kehler points out that the FDA is poised to issue new rules pertaining to unpasteurized milk cheeses. “Cheese makers in Vermont understand what is at stake, and we’re taking steps to get out in front of the FDA. This really has the potential to set us back,” he says.
Jasper Hill Farm makes a few raw-milk cheeses, but has recently purchased more pasteurization equipment in anticipation of new FDA rules. “We make high-risk products. We understand the risks and manage them intensely,” Kehler says.
Stuart Osha of Turkey Hill Farm in Randolph Center disagrees with the Vermont ag agency’s shutdown. He runs a raw-milk microdairy of five cows with his wife, Margaret, selling some raw milk in liquid form and some to Warren’s Three Shepherds Cheese for cheese making. He says people are eager to learn how to make butter and cheese for themselves, and should be able to do so in their homes regardless of personal risk. “To say that it’s against the law to show people how to do that — that’s constitutional-rights stuff,” Osha declares.
“Are we really into policing people’s kitchens?” adds Larry Faillace of Three Shepherds, which holds cheese-making workshops throughout the country, though mostly in licensed facilities.
Rural Vermont’s executive director, Jared Carter will be meeting with Scruton this week to find a middle ground, which Osha hopes will be this dispute’s silver lining. “I hope what comes out of all this is not drawing the lines deeper in the soil, but some dialogue,” he says. “We’re all together in this realm.”