Cheese reprieve: Delay good news for feisty farmers

For most Virginians, the Commonwealth's budget crisis is a dark cloud. But for Christine Solem and John Coles, producers of raw goat milk cheese, that cloud has a definite silver lining: it seems Governor Mark Warner has been so consumed by the state's financial woes that he hasn't had time to sign regulations requiring small dairy operations like theirs to pasteurize their cheese or to purchase expensive new equipment by January 1.

"It will put us out of business," Solem said in May of those regulations, which were approved by the Department of Agriculture on May 15. Last spring, Solem estimated it could cost $50,000 to bring their operation, Satyrfield Farm, into compliance.

Solem and Coles are milking the extra time for all it's worth.

"All you can do is push it back and push it back and keep fighting and never give up," says Solem, who vows that if the Governor does sign the regulations into effect, the Commonwealth will face a court challenge on the issue.

In the meantime, says Solem, she and Coles continue to bombard the Governor with letters from satisfied customers who share her belief that pasteurization would destroy the flavor and quality of the goat cheese they sell on their farm and at the Charlottesville City Market.

John Beers, with the Virginia Department of Agriculture, says Solem's and Coles' vigorous opposition to the regulations is a good thing.

"It's as it should be," he says, explaining that the regulations underwent more extensive review because of the opposition. "They're better regulations than they would have been otherwise," he says.

But the bottom line, Beers says, is that enforced pasteurization all boils down to a public health issue.

"Milk from any mammal is the perfect medium for human pathogens to grow," Beers said back in May, citing campylobacter, a bacteria that causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping, as well as salmonella, which causes similar symptoms, and can be fatal. Even tuberculosis can be spread through dairy products.

Solem and Coles, however, call those claims bunk and say there is "absolutely no evidence" on the alleged health risks of raw milk cheese.

For now, at least, the issue is moot. Though the regulations are not in effect, the Satyrfield goats won't start producing milk until spring, and Solem says they won't be selling any cheese until the City Market starts up again in April.

She hopes that the Governor will suspend the regulations indefinitely or at the very least put in an exemption for farmers who sell their cheese only on the farm or at farmers markets.

Both Beers and Solem agree that it's unlikely the Governor will weigh in at all until after the General Assembly session ends in March.

At presstime, Ellen Qualls, the Governor's press secretary, was unable to provide information on when Warner will consider the issue.

Even if the Governor inks the new dairy regs, Solem says her customers will never see pasteurized cheese produced by Satyrfield Farm.

"We're not going to comply with those regulations," she promises. "We'll either stop, or figure some way around it. Something to drive them crazy."

John Coles and Christine Solem, owners of Satyrfield Farm, with a cheesy friend.