Update, Fall 2011: See update within Rawesome Updates
Update, Fall 2010: See update within Rawesome Updates
Good news from California. Sharon Palmer appeared at an arraignment before the Ventura County Court and had her case dismissed by the judge. [See Wise Traditions Spring 2009 issue for background on the case.] Sharon had earlier been charged with “processing milk or milk products without pasteurization” and “processing for resale milk or milk products without a license”—both felonies under California law. The March 11 hearing marked the third time Palmer had been arraigned; the Ventura County Prosecutor’s Office did not send a prosecutor to any of the arraignments. The bad news is that under California law, the prosecutor has up to three years to reintroduce the charges against her. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department has yet to return any of the computers or business records seized during January 28 raids of both Sharon’s farm and the home of her daughter Jennifer Prince.
On December 18, 2008, Santa Paula dairy farmer Sharon Palmer of Healthy Family Foods (HFF) was arrested by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department (VCSD) for “selling raw milk.” Officers stopped her car about a mile from her farm, handcuffed her and eventually drove her back to her premises here they, along with four other government agencies including the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), conducted a search of her dairy processing plant located on the farm premises. After searching the plant and questioning the farmer, her children and her farm employees, Palmer was arrested and taken to the Ventura County Jail where she remained for twelve hours before being released on her own recognizance. Her release papers stated the formal charges against her were for “processing milk or milk products without pasteurization” and “processing for resale milk or milk products without a license”—both are felonies under California law.
Palmer’s dairy business consists of selling pasteurized goat cheese at farmers’ markets and distributing through a herdshare agreement raw goat’s milk and raw goat cheese to members of the Los Angeles-based Rawsome Food Club (RFC). Palmer and RFC split the cost on the purchase of one hundred goats which she keeps on her farm along with sixty other goats in which she has a full ownership interest. At the time of the arrest, Sharon had a permit to sell at Ventura County farmers’ markets, a pasteurizer license, and a milk products plant license which enabled her to make cheese at a plant near her farm. In September 2008, Sharon moved out of the plant with the intention of transferring her cheese-making operation to the processing plant she had just built on her farm. Since the new plant at the farm was not yet licensed, Sharon froze batches of cheese she manufactured at the old plant to sell at farmers’ markets as a way to carry herself financially until the new plant was approved to be licensed. The only cheese she processed at the unlicensed plant was the cheese distributed to the Rawsome Food Club.
Palmer’s intent was not only to get a milk products plant license but also a license to sell retail raw milk. In November 2008, her inspector conducted an inspection of her milk barn and processing plant for licensing; the inspector told her that everything looked good and that she would call Sharon if she could think of anything that still needed to be done to have the facilities in compliance with licensing requirements. The inspector called a week later requesting a technical drawing for her supervisor but asked for nothing more.
The state investigation into Sharon’s farming operation began during the first week of December 2008 when a detective from the Agricultural Crimes Unit of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department (VCSD) went to the farm in response to Sharon’s complaint that some grain had been stolen. While the detective was at the farm, he witnessed a member of the Rawsome Food Club picking up raw milk and raw cheese; the Sheriff’s Department then informed CDFA. Instead of contacting Sharon to ask her what she was doing, CDFA along with VCSD and several other county government agencies launched an undercover investigation into her business.
On the morning of December 18, undercover agents from CDFA and VCSD bought cheese at the farmers’ market from Healthy Family Foods (HFF). Agents also obtained HFF cheese at the farm after Sharon refused to sell it to them saying she was not licensed to sell on the farm; the agents insisted that they needed the cheese right away for a holiday party so Sharon gave them the cheese at no charge. The sheriff’s department used the “buys” as grounds for arresting Palmer that afternoon. In addition, agents from CDFA and the Ventura County Health Department shut down the HFF table at a local farmers’
market that day, confiscating about $1000 worth of cheese.
Palmer appeared at a scheduled arraignment December 26, 2008; but no charges were brought against her at that time. She made another court appearance on January 15, but again no charges were filed and her arraignment was postponed until March 11.
If the Sheriff’s Department believed they had obtained enough evidence from the December 18 raid to warrant charges being brought against Sharon, its subsequent actions indicate otherwise. After securing a warrant, VCSD executed a second search of Sharon’s farm on January 28. The department also executed a search for HFF records at the home of her daughter, Jennifer Lynn Prince. Prince has worked parttime at the farmers’ markets for her mother; she also has a full-time job working at home for an out-of-state bank. The officers seized her work computer which contained no records of HFF, leaving her unable to work. VCSD also seized Palmer’s computer and business records which, according to Palmer, only dealt with pasteurization charts.
CDFA has told Sharon that it will not act on her license applications until the litigation against her is resolved. Palmer’s inspector, with whom the farmer had a good relationship, has been kept out of the loop during the entire investigation by CDFA. Sharon has not distributed any dairy products to the Rawsome Food Club since the day she was arrested. She has been dumping all milk produced since that day as well. CDFA has admitted in the recent past that herdshare agreements are legal. Moreover, Sharon has never sold any cheese produced at an unlicensed facility to the general public. General Counsel Gary Cox of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is representing Sharon and is attempting to convince the Ventura County Prosecutor’s Office not to pursue charges against the farmer.