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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Bill To Expand Raw Milk Sales Faces Opposition In Montpelier

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Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
Mateo Kehler, co-owner of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, testifies in Montpelier Thursday as lawmakers snack on the cheese plate he brought them as a gift.

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.

"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 perceptive, it doesn't make sense." - Mateo Kehler, cheesemaker

Kehler says allowing unlicensed producers access to the market would undercut cheese makers who have gone through the licensing process. And perhaps more importantly, he says it would also increase the likelihood of a food-borne outbreak that he worries would decimate the state’s cheese brand.

“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.

Berl said raw milk can contain pathogens that pose an especially strong risk to children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. The raw milk proposal also faces opposition from the conventional dairy industry, which says an outbreak would put a stain on the state’s good dairy name.

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.

Goat farmer Frank Huard told lawmakers that stringent testing requirements costs money. "And I can't incur that cost of doing business if I can't sell product."

  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.

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