Rural Routes

Laini and the Vermont Ag Department

by Laini Fondiller

Westfield, Vermont
Upon reading the article "How Now Toxic Cow" [Feb. '96 Progressive Populist], I called the 800 number for the magazine and spoke with Art Cullen. I asked him how I could get a reprint of this wonderful article to put in our Burlington Free Press newspaper. What the author was saying really touched home.

For 3 long years now I have been pleading with the Vermont Department of Agriculture for some sort of recognition or license to make my goat cheese. It seems I don't fit in with any standards that they have set up for processing.

I milk only 9 goats, process around 5 gallons a day during the summer and fall, and sell the cheese at two local farmers markets. And to top it off, I have only electricity made from solar panels. The ag department thinks I'm part Neanderthal.

In a brochure, put out by the diary division of the department of agriculture, the first sentence reads: "Almost 150 years ago, Vermonters made nearly 9 million pounds of cheese in farm kitchens." So for years I was following the tradition and making raw milk goat cheese in my kitchen. I wasn't alone in doing this; there were about 12 other ladies in the state doing the same. The deparment of agriculture preferred to ignore us. And at the time that was fine with us.

It was not fine in June of 1993. One of these ladies' cheese produced 7 cases of salmonella amongst her customers. The clients of this woman were very understanding, but the shit hit the fan in the ag department. Also during this same week there were over 600 other cases of salmonella in many restaurants all over the state. Normally, Vermont has around 240 cases a year. For some reason, still being puzzeled over by the department of health, salmonella was rampant. The focus seemed to stay on this poor cheese maker, she was small, she was "illegal." I guess you can legally produce salmonella, but you cannot illegally produce it. The department of agriculture declared all of us "illegal" cheesemakers public enemy #1. They wrote letters to all the farmers market managers, stating that we were to be tossed out of the market. These managers, unbelievably, complied, except for mine. They ripped up the letter in front of me and said "what letter, I never received any letter," a kind of Ollie North maneuver. So the battle began.

I grabbed my House representative, Bobby Starr, and off we went to meet with the ag department. During this time we had a commissioner who refused to leave his office and would dictate orders to his "subordinates." Needless to say we got nowhere except to possibly put a warning label on my cheese stating: "Warning - Raw Milk Goat Cheese," meaning whole, healthy food could be hazardous to your health.

Bobby Starr has stood by me all 3 years of arguing over various points and possible compromises, taking up his valuable time and having me come in to testify before his house ag committee, which he chairs. Without Bobby my right-to-make-cheese cause would have gone nowhere. Basically he and his committee have taken the role of mediators. Each year after testifying, compromises would be made on both sides and I would do my part and the ag department would drag their feet until the legislature was out of session and then they would renege on their promises.

I made a small cheese room, getting out of my kitchen, and the following year I began to pasteurize my milk of top of my stove in a stainless steel pot.

Our commissioner passed away last summer, so the department was in limbo the summer of '95. A new commissioner was appointed in the fall. I let him get the commissioner's throne warmed up and then set up an appointment with him in January. He actually showed up at the meeting! I brought him up to date with what had happening over the years. Byron Moyer, head of the dairy division, also attended the meeting, since he and I had been going fists to cuffs over this issue in the past years. Leon Graves (commissioner) seemed to be sympathetic to the cause. I even brought in photos of the farm; since I had his attention I was going to milk it for all it was worth. He thought that we could work something out, especially since I'd made my cheese room (I'd brought photos of that, too) and I was now willing to pasteurize. "We'll see what we can do; thanks for coming in." Hell, that sounded pretty good, even if thay were lying.

And they were; a few weeks later, Bobby Starr called me up with less than a 24-hour notice to come in again and testify. Seems that they had a change of heart, that they still thought I was a food safety risk without pasteurizing my milk in some fancy pasteurizer.

I didn't sleep that night and I was too nervous to eat breakfast the next morning, plus it was an hour and a half drive to Montpelier. I was not in a good mood by the time I got there. I went and got my third cup of coffee minutes before the meeting. I walked into the room and there was Byron Moyer to testify against me.

Bobby started the meeting and I heard the words "food-safety-risk," I lost it. I didn't raise my hand to be recognized to speak. Three years of complete frustration, fueled by sleep deprivation, food deprivation, too much coffee, and this 5'2" 105 lb. body exploded.

I think the speech went something like this:

"You say I'm a food safety risk, when there are large megafarms dumping pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, in untold amounts, not only on their fields, but also on the workers in the fields. I'm a food safety risk, when farmers can inject hormones to make the animals grow faster or hormones to make them milk more. I'm a food safety risk and large industrial food processors slosh chemicals and germicides all over their equipment and then pump food through this equipment. I'm a food safety risk when some farms have to change the antibiotics every couple of months because of resistance. We allow the production of genetically altered vegetables. Procter & Gamble is now putting a no-fat-fat into low cholestrol foods and who knows what the effects are to that. We can sterilize, irradiate and pour tons of preservatives into our 'foods,' but I'm a food safety risk. I feed my animals organic grains and use homeopathic medicines and herbs when they're sick. I wash with hydrogen peroxide. I love what I do and I take my cheese making as an art and I'm a food safety risk," etc., etc.

Well, the room was silent for a few moments after that, then Bobby proceeded to deal with Mr. Moyer. He made a strong point that he didn't care that no other state gave licenses or compromised on standards to adjust to the needs of small cheesemakers. (The department of agriculture brought in a letter stating that research had been done in trying to find other states who had dealt with such a situation). He felt Vermont was unique and we should do things our own way. "We all know one another, here in Vermont, and we should all work together here." He asked Mr. Moyer for a simple definition of pasteurization - which means a certain temperature for a specific amount of time. "So she doesn't need all these bells and whisles on her pasteurizer does she," Bobby asked.

"No" answered Mr. Moyer.

"So then you and Laini can sit down and come up with a simple pasteurizer that you can both live with?"

"Yes," replied Mr. Moyer.

"Good, now, I don't want Laini to have to come back here again. Not that we don't enjoy her company, but enough is enough. I want you to understand, Byron, that the statehouse sets the policy for the department of ag and we'd appreciate it if you would follow through here. And besides," he concluded, "I have to campaign every 2 years for this position and if Laini doesn't have her licence before my next campaign I'll be afraid to pass by her farm, for fear she'll shoot me."

So now perhaps this will be the end of it and I can get some sort of license. But what a long and sad battle. Sad because, how did we get this way? Big is good and small is bad. And being really small is not only bad, but weird. Why would I only want to milk a few goats and just make a little bit of cheese and not make much money ... it's not the American way. One of the biggest fears was that there may be more like me - what will we do if lots more farmers may want to make value-added products right there on the farm. Oh my god - we'll go to hell in a hand bucket for sure. Will the department of agriculture continually fight against the very farmers that they are there to represent? Is an ag department's agenda to regulate and restrict or should it be to facilitate and assist?

Laini Fondiller operates the Lazy Lady Farm near Westfield, Vermont.