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Fromage Rage

Side Dishes: A pricing controversy erupts at Farmers' Market

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For years, Dawn Boucher of Boucher Family Farm, maker of award-winning cow's-milk cheeses such as Gore-Dawn-Zola and Brother Laurent, has priced her wedges the quick way. After she cuts a wheel into twelfths, she scrutinizes each piece of cheese and decides whether to sell it for $5, $6 or $7.

None of the slices are exactly the same size, but after evaluating thousands of pounds of cheese "by eye," Boucher says, she has it nearly down to a science. And until last weekend, she adds, no one ever complained.

That changed when Michael Larose, food-safety specialist with the Agency of Agriculture, stopped by Boucher's stand at the Burlington Farmers' Market last Saturday. On her blog, the cheese maker describes her version of what ensued: "[Larose] tells me I can't sell cheese this way 'because consumers don't know what they are buying,' and in my recollection, called it 'fraud,' to my face."

"Let's be clear about this," Boucher's blog screed continues. "There are radishes, parsley, beets, carrots, flowers and scallions for sale by the bunch, not by weight. I can go to the local Hannaford and buy two lemons for $.39 each, but I can't sell a piece of cheese for $5 flat without a weight from a state-inspected scale on the label? They have got to be kidding me."

Larose couldn't be reached for comment. But Henry Marckres, chief of consumer protection at the ag agency, said the man was just doing his job. "There are customary methods of sale for different items," he explained. "A loaf of bread or certain produce you can sell by 'the each.'" Not so with curds. "The standard method of sale for cheese is by weight," he continued. If farmstead cheese makers have concerns about the policy, he suggested, they should approach the agency and propose a change.

UVM Nutrition and Food Sciences Professor Cathy Donnelly, a dairy expert and member of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, got in on the action, too. On Saturday, she fired off an epistle to ag Secretary Roger Allbee. "He thanked me very much for the feedback, and I know he'll look into it. He's very responsive," Donnelly asserts. "My point was that, for a small producer like Dawn, [any extra time commitment is] just going to drive up the price of the product. This could set a dangerous precedent. Does the woman who makes the beautiful nut butters have to start weighing them? If we all wanted commodity products by price, we'd all be at the supermarket."

Now, with a scale on its way to her farm, Boucher worries about the time it will take her to weigh each piece of cheese and write the poundage and price on the label. The scale she could afford doesn't do math, so she'll have to make her own calculations.

Her other gripes involve nickel and zinc. Currently the Bouchers round off their cheese prices and often "drop the cents" when a customer purchases a sizeable chunk of meat. "For the amount of business that we do, we have to," she says. "I don't know if that's legal anymore."

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