Full list: Agriculture in the News

USA Today: Vt. agriculture businesses face audits, big tax bills

Dan D’Ambrosio, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
Full Article

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Chris Conant didn’t know how mad he could get until he was audited by the Vermont Department of Taxes.

The co-owner of Claussen’s Florist & Greenhouse in Colchester said auditors were in his business for the months between April and July 2014 — his busiest season — going over his records.

“I’m not a rude person, I always make sure to be very cordial to people I’m dealing with, but at one point I got so frustrated because of inconsistent information that for the first time in my life I walked away from them and said, ‘I’m done, we’re done having this conversation because obviously you’re challenging my integrity,'” Conant said. “You’re calling me a liar.”

The issue that brought Conant to the boiling point was the sales and use tax. Gregg Mousley, deputy commissioner of the tax department, explained the difference between the two types of tax and how they are collected.

Take flowers, for example, something Conant sells. Flowers are sold retail, sales tax is collected, and therefore flowers are exempt from use tax. The sponge that holds the flowers, the plastic wrap that wraps them, the wires and ribbons that adorn them and hold them together, are not being resold and are therefore subject to use tax.

“It’s a question of whether the item is going to be resold or if it’s being consumed,” Mousley said.

If it’s resold, sales tax applies. If it’s consumed, use tax applies. Sounds simple, but in Conant’s case the distinction took on almost Orwellian overtones, leaving Conant frustrated and perplexed.

“They started digging out invoices and looking at products we use and all of a sudden the language of use tax came up,” Conant said.

Conant learned he would be charged use tax for the soil to grow his plants.

“I don’t understand,” Conant said. “How do you get a use tax on soil you grow your plants in when you can’t grow a plant without the soil and the plant is exempt?”

Conant told the auditors he had never paid use tax on his soil before, but was told that based on the criteria set forth in the state statute, he should have been.

“Plants are exempt, not the soil they’re grow in, not the media they’re grown in,” Conant said.

A very fine line

Deputy Commissioner Gregg Mousley understands Chris Conant’s frustration.

“It comes down to while the use tax very generally might make sense to people, how it’s interpreted involves a very fine line regarding what’s eligible and what’s not,” Mousley said. “It’s not always clear and it’s complex and difficult for business owners to keep track of all the law changes.”

As Conant’s audit progressed, and the use tax he owed began to pile up, he realized the seriousness of the problem he faced.

Conant’s total bill for use and sales taxes owed, once his plastic wrap, tags, pots, packs, boxes and flats were added to the tally, was nearly $150,000. As of Dec. 1, he had gotten that bill down to $46,000, “basically through the diligence of explaining to them about our industry,” Conant said.

“I don’t want this to be a bitch session because I’ll do whatever I’m told, but up to this point there’s been nothing laid out on the table for us to be told our obligation for this use tax,” he said.

“Virtually everything I touch is being taxed, except the plant,” Conant added.

Tom Jennings at Green Mountain Florist Supply in South Burlington is two years into his audit and is still waiting for the tax department to get back to him regarding his counter-offer to the tax bill he was given.

“They basically came in here looking for any scraps they could find,” Jennings said. “They came at me with packaging, that what I sold was not floral-related, that it was packaging.”

That non-exempt packaging included vases. Jennings was handed a $200,000 bill. He has made a counter-offer based on what he felt was fair that is considerably less than $200,000. That offer was made right after Christmas. Jennings said he is sitting on “pins and needles” waiting for the state to respond.

Retailers hopeful about sales tax bill

Mousley said the tax department is trying to reach out, mostly through 15 fact sheets available on its websites. The tax department is also doing what it can to meet with business owners face to face.

“We are getting to some industry groups,” Mousley said. “We go out to the Better Business Bureau booth at certain trade shows. We are doing our best. We only have two positions that do that and they can only reach so far.”

There are currently more than 500 active appeals like Jennings’ appeal before the tax department, Mousley said. Predicting how long those appeals will take is impossible because each one is unique. Often taxpayers have to produce additional documents as part of the appeal process.

Appeals can take a few weeks, or a few years, Mousley said.

Don’t clear the snow

Mousley described the difficulty in making calculations that presumably go into determining whether a piece of equipment is tax exempt.

“It’s really hard to prove,” Mousley said. “In many cases the tax department has just assumed that certain pieces of equipment are not tax exempt. You would have to have a log to prove you use it 96 percent of the time on agricultural purposes. That’s where it gets really hard. If you push the snow out of your driveway you’re done.”

The Farm Bureau got involved in the sales and use tax debate after equipment dealers became the focus of audits.

“It’s on our list of priority issues to straighten out because it’s a mess and ultimately the people who will pay the bill for shrinking of the farm exemption will be farmers,” said Clark Hinsdale, a Charlotte dairy farmer and longtime president of the Farm Bureau.

Meanwhile, back at Claussen’s Greenhouse, Chris Conant waits for his grievance to be processed by the tax department. He tried to settle for just over $20,000 but that didn’t fly. He thinks there could be 100 businesses ahead of him in the queue and figures it could be more than a year before he gets “closure.”

“I’m frustrated,” Conant said. “Every bill that goes through my hands, based on what’s being challenged, I’m accounting for it in preparation for paying use tax. I have to. If I don’t they can randomly come in and say, ‘How come you’re not paying use tax on this?'”

“I’m scared stiff of how much more I’ll have to pay, I really am,” he said.

The Heartland Institute: Vermont Lawmaker Proposes Easing Raw Milk Rules

By Kelsey Hackem
Full Article

Vermont State Rep. Teo Zagar (D-Windsor) is proposing a bill to loosen state regulations on raw milk sales in the state. Zagar is sponsoring a bill allowing dairy farmers to sell raw milk through community farmers’ markets and agricultural programs, with less oversight from the Vermont Department of Health.

Keep Food Legal Foundation executive director and George Mason University Law School adjunct professor Baylen Linnekin says Zagar’s bill benefits Vermont consumers.

“Strict regulations don’t really serve anyone’s interest, except those who are incumbent businesses who are already in favor of the regulations, which is not always a universal thing,” he said. “In the case of dairy, pasteurized dairy vendors, most often along with public health agencies are the primary opponents of raw milk.”

Moo-ving Towards More Consumer Choice

Linnekin says the bill was likely to be beneficial to the state’s residents, without any negative consequences.

“This Vermont bill would seem to be another example of that, of benefitting Vermont farmers and consumers, to the detriment likely of no one,” he said.

Linnekin says people should be allowed to buy milk that has not been processed or treated before consumption.

“I don’t think pasteurization is at all a bad idea, but I think obviously there is a segment of consumers who prefer not to by pasteurized milk,” he said. “It may be some of the same people who prefer not to buy cooked chicken or cooked ground beef, who prefer to get it at the store and if they choose to cook it do so themselves, or people that eat sushi. I think it’s really a matter of choice.”

‘Right to Consume’

The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s president, Pete Kennedy, says states’ food regulations are confusing and restrict people’s choices.

“I think ultimately it boils down to a freedom-of-choice issue. The law for raw milk in many states is dysfunctional right now. It is legal to consume raw milk, you can’t get arrested for possession, yet people still in a number of states don’t have access to it so they can exercise their right to consume it,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a drug, where you can get arrested for possession.”

Kennedy says food safety regulations often arbitrarily prevent consumers from purchasing products they enjoy drinking and eating.

A lot of the regulations are one-size-fits-all. They make it difficult for smaller producers to make a living,” he said. “I think, overall, raw milk sales whether they are regulated or unregulated have a good track record for safety.”

Waterbury Record Op-Ed: The House Judiciary Committee, plus the raw milk bill

Thursday, March 26, 2015
House Report by Rep. Maxine Grad
Full Op-Ed

Raw Milk

The Agriculture and Forest Products Committee has taken up H.426, the raw milk bill, and has heard from milk producers, cheese makers, conventional dairy farmers, veterinarians and the Department of Health. The bill has a long way to go and is a work in progress, but our guiding principles are food safety and economic opportunity.

Vermont’s raw milk law has helped small farmers start businesses and meet a growing demand for farm-fresh milk, but many believe there is room for improvement.

Since unpasteurized milk came under state regulation in 2009, there have been no reported cases of illness associated with producers operating under the raw milk law and in the business of selling raw milk to consumers. Raw milk is potentially harmful when improperly handled or if the health of the animal is compromised, but the risks can be mitigated through appropriate regulation, inspection, testing and market access.

Since the Legislature expanded the law last year by allowing those producing between 87.5 and 280 gallons per week to deliver their milk at farmers’ markets, the number of such producers jumped from two to seven. However, an internal policy decision at the Agency of Agriculture potentially threatened the viability of some farmers. This bill is an attempt to restore the legislative intent, expand economic opportunities, and continue to have sound food safety policies.

H.246 includes these primary proposals:

• Expand market access and sales volume for Tier 1 and 2 producers.

• Eliminate the requirement that a customer visit the farm before buying milk.

• Allow direct sale at approved locations.

• Streamline and improve the testing regulations.

• Modify the language on warning labels and signs to convey necessary information.

• Allow limited production and sale of value-added products such as cheese, yogurt and butter.

• Create a new “neighborly tier” for small amounts of milk for on-farm sale only.

Everyone wants Vermont farmers to succeed and consumers to have access to safe products. Raw milk producers have a vested interest in making a high-quality product; their livelihoods and reputations depend on it.

USA Today: Roundup a ‘probable carcinogen,’ WHO report says

Tracy Loew
March 20, 2015
Full Article

A report published Friday in the journal The Lancet Oncology says glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is a “probable carcinogen.”

The report is from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the France-based cancer research arm of the World Health Organization.

“This latest finding, which links Monsanto’s Roundup to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer is not the first to make these links, but it is one of the strongest indictments of glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup,” said Ronnie Cummins, international director for the Organic Consumers Association.

Monsanto disagreed with the classification.

“All labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health and supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health databases ever compiled on an agricultural product,” Philip Miller, Monsanto’s global regulatory affairs vice president, said in a written statement.

Roundup is the No. 1 herbicide used in the world. Most genetically modified crops, such as corn and soybeans, are modified to withstand applications of Roundup.

The Department of Agriculture does not test food for glyphosate residues, but in 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency raised the allowed limits of glyphosate residues on fruits and vegetables.

The report comes as legislatures in Oregon and other states consider mandatory labeling of genetically modified food and restricting the planting of genetically modified crops.

It prompted the Environmental Working Group to call on the FDA to require mandatory GMO labeling.

“The widespread adoption of GMO corn and soybeans has led to an explosion in the use of glyphosate — a main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and Dow’s Enlist Duo,” said Ken Cook, EWG president. “Consumers have the right to know how their food is grown and whether their food dollars are driving up the use of a probable carcinogen.”

Burlington Free Press: For this farmer, raw milk is a symbol of values

We began preparations with dessert. Weeks before our wedding reception, Edge and I churned raw milk into ice cream crank by crank in an old-fashioned ice cream maker. We could have bought it — after all, there are delicious Vermont-made ice creams — but we chose to sit in the evenings on the back porch with coffee-infused cream, ice, and rock salt, and take turns cranking.

Like everything else in our lives we did it for connection, but also because if we wanted to have seven gallons of raw milk (as opposed to pasteurized milk) ice cream, we had to make it ourselves. In 2011, the year we got married, we lived on a grass-based dairy and livestock farm, and had an ample supply of raw milk available to us. In fact, we had first come to this farm seeking raw milk, and after a series of dinners with the farmers were invited to set up a yurt and learn how a small organic dairy farm works.

I didn’t grow up drinking raw milk; it was pasteurized skim for my family, and the watery, near tasteless liquid never excited my taste buds much. It wasn’t until after college when I began working on a small farm in Northfield with dairy goats that I discovered that people drank raw milk. Once I drank my way into the raw milk crowd, I found a large subset of Vermonters who see raw milk as a symbol for the values of traditional small-scale farming.

Aside from the health benefits of raw milk — it’s more easily digestible for some and has a higher vitamin content than pasteurized milk — the process of producing it requires close attention to cleanliness and animal health, and it practically demands a sustainable method of farming that takes care of animals, land and people.

Farmers that sell raw milk typically raise their herds on grass and allow them to follow natural patterns through rotational grazing. Raw milk also tends to be sold in a closer radius than pasteurized milk, creating a customer base who knows its farmers and cows or goats. For many, choosing to drink raw milk is choosing to be part of a community that values healthy animals, healthy and diverse pastures, clean water, clean farms, and farmers who respect the relationship between environmental resources, animals and people. To me, drinking raw milk is not just a personal health choice, but a statement on what kind of community I want to live in.

It was early August when we began making batches of ice cream for our reception at the end of the month. By that time, we had spent enough early mornings in the cement pit of the milking parlor for the romance of dairy farming to wear off, though our time moving the cows on pasture continued to offer a rhythmic peace to our days. We knew by then that if we were to have cows on our own farm, the number would be closer to 1 rather than 50. Still, the time spent with a herd of over 50 cows on a grass-based farm taught me that dairy farming is much more than milking. To witness the herd instincts of cows is to be brought back to the intuitive rhythms of animals, and being in their presence sparks the same unspoken connection between people and land.

When we finally scooped that ice cream into bowls, it was perfect. The thick creaminess of it coated our mouths unlike any other ice cream I’d eaten before, and I smothered the accompanying fudge brownies with scoops of vanilla and coffee.

Now, four years later, we have our own farm but no cows. Instead, we buy raw milk from Rogers Farmstead in Berlin, and I’ve learned that you don’t have to be the one milking to have a connection to the cows. I’m happy to acknowledge that my strength is growing vegetables, and that the Rogers’ know how to produce delicious, creamy milk, perfect for ice cream.

With enough support, a new raw milk bill, H.426, is set to make raw milk easier for farmers to sell and customers to buy. The current law and proposed bill include health and cleanliness standards and regular testing, though the Vermont Department of Health opposes the bill in favor of pasteurization. Raw milk producers often allow customers to view their milking facilities and practices, which creates greater transparency and accountability, while encouraging relationships between farmers and customers, in my experience. For more information on the proposed bill, visit ruralvermont.org, which advocates for the bill, or you can read the bill at http://bit.ly/1y1tzjA. You can let the House Agriculture Committee know whether you support H.426 by calling or emailing the Statehouse.

Environmental Working Group: DARK Act Blocks States From Mandating GMO Labeling

March 25, 2015
Full Press Release

Washington, D.C. – A bill expected to be introduced today by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) would block states from requiring labeling on genetically modified food, and also hamper any U.S. Food and Drug Administration efforts to mandate labeling nationwide, the Environmental Working Group said in a statement.

“More than 90 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, believe foods made with GMOs should be labeled,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for EWG. “Consumers in 64 countries already have the right to know if their food contains GMOs.  Supporters of this bill are trying to keep this basic information from their constituents.”

The bill – dubbed by its critics the Deny Americans the Right-to-Know or DARK Act — would overturn labeling laws enacted in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine and prevent other states from adopting such laws. Since 2013, more than 70 labeling proposals have been introduced in 30 states.

Contrary to promises from the biotechnology industry, the widespread adoption of GMO crops has lead to a surge in herbicide usage. As weeds have grown resistant, farmers have been forced to turn to more intensely toxic chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems. Last week, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the active ingredient in the infamous weed killer Roundup, as a probable human carcinogen.

Besides interfering with states’ rights, the DARK Act would make the current, broken voluntary GMO labeling system the law of the land.

“Not a single company has ever voluntarily disclosed the presence of GMOs in its food,” Faber said. “Voluntary labeling does nothing to solve the confusion consumers face at the supermarket, nor does it provide them with the information overwhelming numbers of consumers clearly want.”

Seven Days: The Life, Death and Afterlife of a Vermont Steer

By Alice Levitt
March 24, 2015
Full Article

On a day in early February, Charlie stuck close to home in Plainfield, munching on hay just downhill from where Highland cattle lolled their fuzzy, square heads. He doesn’t like to be far from his mom, Janet Steward, who owns Shat Acres Farm and Greenfield Highland Beef with her husband, Ray Shatney. When Steward approached, Charlie batted his long eyelashes blankly and waggled his big, fuzzy ears with pleasure when she began to brush him and coo compliments.

From birth, Charlie was labeled a “terminal animal” — Shatney and Steward always knew his lifespan would be about 20 months. “He has only one purpose, and that is to produce beef,” said Steward, explaining that the steer would not be passing down his half-Highland, half-shorthorn genetics. But his success as a breed cross might inspire a trend among Vermont farmers who are eager to profit from an animal well suited to living on grass and enduring cold winters.

Charlie’s life and death could end up serving as a template for big-money beef in a state far better known for its beer and cheese than its meat.

And, in fact, Charlie — whom Steward called a “man of few thoughts” — had more in store for him than just becoming dinner. At Denver’s National Western Stock Show in January, he had come in last in his market animal category. But for an extra $25, Steward and Shatney entered him in the show’s carcass competition, judging the meat he would one day become. Such contests were once focused on actual dead flesh, but technology has brought the practice to life.

The animal was taken from the show ring to an area where his side was shaved for an ultrasound. The scan revealed that an exceptionally generous portion of Charlie’s physique consisted of the muscles that would become high-end cuts such as tenderloin and rib eye steaks. In short order, the living, breathing steer was named the competition’s grand champion reserve carcass. Translation: His was deemed the second most valuable cattle corpse in the country — while he was still alive and well.

Back home in Vermont, Steward publicized Charlie’s victory in every way she could. In a February article in the Barton Chronicle, she told reporter Tena Starr, “We always believed he was special on the inside, and the carcass competition proved it.”

Steward invited Joe Emenheiser, the state livestock specialist for the University of Vermont extension, to come and meet Charlie. Emenheiser later complimented the farmers for recognizing “that crossbreeding is the most powerful tool in animal breeding.” About Charlie he said, “He was a nice calf. He had grown well and was right at 12 o’clock as far as finishing” — meaning the animal was ready to meet his fate.

Saying Farewell

Charlie’s win may have garnered him a reprieve, but on February 16, it was time for his final trip. “The hardest thing I do is go to the slaughterhouse,” admitted Shatney. “But our goal is for these cattle to only have one bad day in their life.”

Dying is part of living, and both are filled with indignity for all organic beings. But at Sharon Beef, Darryl Potter tries to make animals’ transition from life to death as easy as possible. He’s a certified humane handler who lives on the same property as the facility. Outside the slaughterhouse, Potter’s two affectionate dogs follow him closely.

“They deserve a good ending,” he said of the creatures he eases off this mortal coil. “I’m an animal lover even though I’m a butcher.”

Potter makes sure that his staff adheres to famed animal scientist Temple Grandin’s philosophy of how to move his charges without frightening them, and he’s strict with farmers, as well. Livestock delivered to the facility must be clean and drug-free. If the people unloading their animal are deemed cruel in any way, Potter will not process it. The slaughterhouse is also USDA-inspected, an indication of additional oversight that helps “keep the food supply safe,” said Potter.

Shatney and Steward were quiet in the car as they pulled Charlie in his trailer to Sharon, Steward recounted. He spent his final night in a clean pen with fresh hay and water. “Darryl likes for the animals to come a day ahead of time,” Steward explained. “They eat in the pen so they’re relaxed, and they’re not loaded into a trailer then shuffled along.”

The next morning, Charlie was dispatched with a single gunshot to the head. His body weighed in at 1,350 pounds while alive, and came to a full hanging weight of 804 pounds. Steward said her animals’ hanging weight is generally between 55 and 60 percent of their live weight. Charlie — on a winning streak even in death — showed his value at 65 percent.

A Taste of Victory

As his ultrasound at the Denver stock show had predicted, Charlie’s high-end primal cuts were exceptionally large for an animal of his size. “The rib primal was 19.67 pounds, the largest we have ever had, with beautiful marbling,” Steward wrote to Seven Days the day she collected the first half of Charlie’s meaty remains.

Potter was impressed, too. Charlie’s shorthorn DNA gave him the advantages of thriving on a grass diet like a Highland, with the marbling and size of the larger breed. Compared to a full-blooded Highland, Potter said, “Charlie is a different category. It’s like buying a Cadillac versus a Volkswagen. When you’re trying to make money by the pound, there’s no comparison.”

Steward took the meat home and cooked herself and Shatney a pair of Charlie’s rib eyes. Seated at the dinner table, Shatney sawed away at the flesh, telling his wife that the meat was tough; Steward’s heart dropped, she said later. But when she cut into her own steak, “It was like butter,” Steward remembered. Shatney had been joking. “It was the best New York strip steak we ever had. I was just so grateful to Charlie.”

Other meat lovers can be grateful, too. In addition to the Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier, most Greenfield beef is sold at Healthy Living Market & Café in South Burlington. Steward makes a delivery each Friday to Colin Driscoll, the store’s meat manager and buyer.

Aside from the significantly larger size of Charlie’s steaks, what Driscoll noticed was the marbling. “It looked more like grain-fed beef, and it was a grass-fed animal,” he said. That means the meat had the soft, fatty texture of a western-style feedlot steer, but with the lower cholesterol and higher Omega fatty acids of grass-fed cattle.

Driscoll admitted that when he prepares steak at home, it’s usually from a grain-fed animal. But Charlie’s meat seemed to combine the greatest advantages of both finishing methods.

This reporter found the filet more forgiving than most; the meat seared effortlessly to a medium rare. Though this cut is generally tender, it is often bland. Charlie’s cut had more external fat than usual, and therefore more to cut away, but it also had deep capillaries of marbling. This lent the meat a fat content that made it practically moo with beef’s deep, mineral flavor.

As for Charlie’s short ribs, they fell off the bone after just two hours of braising — about half the time usually required to render down the fatty cut. In the ground beef, the fat made for a lighter color than that of other Greenfield cattle, but also an intensely beefy flavor.

Greenfield created not just a medal winner with Charlie, but the start of something big in Vermont beef. Beginning next month, 30 more shorthorn-Highland crosses will be born at Shat Acres. “We’re going to have 30 baby Charlies! We’re so excited,” Steward said.

And with them, the cycle of life, death and afterlife will begin again.

Times Argus: Costly Irony, Letter to the Editor by Peter Burmeister

Full LTE

GlobalFoundries, the probable successor to ownership of the IBM manufacturing facilities in Vermont, is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the richest countries in the world. It is also an absolute monarchy, headed by a hereditary ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who ranks among the planet’s wealthiest individuals.

As an inducement to get GlobalFoundries to take the money-losing, obsolete Vermont and New York operations off its hands, IBM has agreed to give the acquirer $1.5 billion along with the lock, stock and barrel of its holdings and real estate.

How ironic, then, that little Vermont, struggling to balance its budget with a deficit that figures in the mere millions, still plans to pony up several million in order to sweeten the deal. This against the backdrop of severe budget cuts to homegrown programs such as working lands and Current Use that benefit our rapidly expanding homegrown agricultural sector.

Why are we being so generous with our scant resources, to the benefit of an oil-rich Arab nation that has already received what amounts to an enormous gift from IBM? Do we really believe that $2 million will ensure that GlobalFoundries will continue to operate in this state? What will it want from us next year, and in years to come? What kind of friend or ally is it that has to be bought in order to stay on our side?

It would be far better to take the remote chance that the Chittenden County facilities might be shuttered, than to shortchange the courageous, hardworking Vermont entrepreneurs who truly represent the future of our state.

Peter Burmeister

The writer is an organic livestock farmer and processor.

Valley News: Bill to lighten Vermont raw milk regulations draws debate

By DAVE GRAM, Associated Press
March 19, 2015
Full Article

(AP) — Vermont Rep. Teo Zagar says he prefers raw, unpasteurized milk, but will stop at his general store for the conventional stuff when the dirt road to his favorite farm is deep in snow or spring mud.

“There’s a little more terroir,” the Democrat from Barnard said of the milk he gets from Kiss the Cow Farm, using a wine enthusiast’s term for earthiness. “If the dandelions are blooming, the milk has a little yellow tint to it.”

Zagar is lead sponsor of a House bill that would made it easier for the state’s growing number of organic dairies to bring raw milk to market. Consumers now must go to the farm or have it delivered to them by the farmer. The bill would allow raw milk to be sold at farmers’ markets, through community-supported agriculture programs and, with some additional regulation, at retail.

The state Health Department doesn’t like the idea.

Expanding the sale of raw milk “really allows producers to bypass one of the most effective public health measures ever, one that is often called one of the triumphs of the 20th century, and that is pasteurization,” said Dr. Erica Berl, a state epidemiologist.

Raw milk’s popularity has been growing in recent years, as people become more educated about food and as the “foodie” movement gains ground with its adherents’ interest in traditional foods, said Andrea Stander, executive director of the farm advocacy group Rural Vermont. Its sale is legal in some form in 26 states, she said.

Vermont opened the door to the current, limited sales of raw milk in 2009, and the bill’s backers say there have been no disease outbreaks since then. Raw milk producers testified they have unnecessary hurdles to pass that are not faced by conventional dairies, including the need to drive their milk to just two locations in the state for testing.

Aside from the expanded sales, the bill would allow less frequent testing of milk produced by raw milk dairies. But supporters say the real aim is to better balance the costs of doing business with profitability.

“It’s a balance between safety, which is No. 1, and economic opportunity,” Zagar said. “Farmers need to sell enough milk to make enough profits to keep the business viable.”

Stander said the bill is not expected to become law with less than two months left in this year’s legislative session. But if it can get through the House, the Senate can take it up when lawmakers reconvene next January.

VPR: Bill to Expand Raw Milk Sales Faces Opposition in Montpelier

Mar 19, 2015
Full Article & Audio

Lawmakers are considering a bill designed to expand the raw milk market in Vermont. But health experts and dairy industry stalwarts say the proposal could inflict serious damage on the state’s agriculture sector.

Among those voicing concerns is Mateo Kehler. And Kehler knows his audience.

Kehler, co-owner of Jasper Hill Farm, was about to testify before the House Committee on Agriculture Thursday morning. But first, he presented legislators a wood board loaded with thick wedges of artisanal cheese from his renowned cellars in Greensboro.

“Madame chair and honorable members of the committee, I really appreciate the opportunity to come share,” Kehler said as the legislators tucked in to the spread.

Kehler was in the Statehouse to testify in opposition to a bill that aims to expand the raw milk market, and also allow small raw milk farmers to sell cheeses and other value-added items made from their product.

It’s the latter provision that has Kehler and other artisan cheese makers concerned.

“And I just have to ask, given the scale and the scope and the trajectory of the Vermont cheese industry, whether it makes sense to undermine that for the sake of seven or eight tier two producers. From my perspective, it doesn’t make sense,” Kehler said.

Kehler is less concerned about the parts of the bill that would producers to sell raw milk at farmers markets and retail stores – places they’re prohibited from selling now. But that provision faces stiff opposition from other constituencies, including public health experts who view the consumption of unpasteurized milk as a disaster waiting to happen.

“Allowing the sale of raw milk to consumers really means allowing these consumers to bypass one of the most effective health measures ever implemented. In fact it’s often called one of the triumphs of the 20th century,” said Erica Berl public health epidemiologist at the Vermont Department of Health.

Raw milk producers however say the financial viability of their raw milk operations hinges on access to the kinds of high-traffic markets available at farmers markets and retail outlets.

They say the state has yet to see a confirmed raw-milk outbreak from a licensed producer since selling raw milk became legal five years ago. Goat farmer Frank Huard told lawmakers that stringent testing requirements imposed by the state mean it’ll stay that way.

Huard, who milks 10 goats on his family farm in Craftsbury, says testing costs money.

“And I can’t incur that cost of doing business if I can’t sell product,” Huard said.

The bill also would allow very small raw milk operations to sell raw milk to sell to their neighbors without any testing requirements at all.

Stephanie Eiring, owner of Sunrise Farm in Enosburg Falls, says it’s the kind of provision that could help her raise the revenue needed to grow into the farm of her dreams.

“How am I going to get there? How am I going to pay for these cows, the semen, the shavings, the hay?”  Eiring said. “You guys could make it easier for us. You definitely could provide this economic opportunity.”

The legislation would also allow raw milk producers to sell in community supported agriculture operations.