Sharon Palmer stands near a flock of lambs on her Santa Paula farm, where she raises goats, chickens, pigs and cattle. Pamler faces prosecution for the unlicensed production and sale of unpasteurized milk and related dairy products, though she maintains that she was licensed at the time she was charged. Palmer no longer produces dairy products as a result of the police raids on her home.
A Santa Paula farmer at the center of a raw-milk prosecution in Los Angeles says she did not sell unpasteurized products to the general public without a license.
Sharon Palmer, owner of Healthy Family Farms, is charged in a felony indictment with being part of a criminal conspiracy to produce and sell unlicensed raw milk and related dairy products in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
“I have always been licensed for what I sold to the public. Always,” Palmer said Monday as she walked around the farm where she raises chickens, sheep, pigs and cattle. “I never sold milk. I only sold cheese.”
She believes she’s been targeted as part of a wider government effort against people who want to control their own food supply.
The government is cracking down on operations like Palmer’s that are considered herd shares, where several people split ownership of goats or cows because an animal’s owners can legally drink its raw milk without state inspections. The California Department of Food and Agriculture argues that herd shares must be licensed and inspected by the state, according to Steve Lyle, spokesman for the agency.
The crux of the agency’s position is that herd-sharing arrangements, where milk is distributed off the property, is a commercial distribution subject to state law, and authorities must make sure the food is safe.
“It’s not just about me. It’s happening all over the country,” Palmer said. “I am very, very hopeful that this will become apparent that this is government abuse.”
Palmer was arrested by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department on Aug. 3, acting on a warrant issued out of Los Angeles County.
“At 6:30 in the morning, six sheriff’s deputies came to my door. They were kind enough not to handcuff me in front of the kids,” said Palmer, a single mother of three teenagers.
She spent six days in custody before being freed on $60,000 bail. At her Aug. 10 arraignment in Los Angeles, she entered not-guilty pleas to nine charges against her.
Her co-defendants are James Stewart, who operates the private club Rawesome, and Victoria Bloch, who helps Palmer with her website and farmers market sales. They also were arrested Aug. 3, at Rawesome in Venice. They also pleaded not guilty at their arraignments.
“This is really about freedom and our freedom as citizens. All people are doing is trying to get healthy food,” said Ajna Wilson, an attorney for Stewart.
The charges relate to incidents documented by undercover officers between March and June 2010, culminating in a raid of Healthy Family Farms in June 2010.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said it’s taken more than a year to bring charges because a multiagency task force was involved in the investigation.
Palmer, who sells some of her products at farmers markets and through a Community Supported Agriculture club, has a previous, unrelated felony conviction for fraud in 1999.
“I think I am an easy target,” she said. “It’s easy to say a criminal did this so it makes it a criminal act. My past is my past and I got into farming to do something great for the community and be with my children.”
She said when she moved from a farm in Fillmore to one in Santa Paula in 2008, the license she had to operate a dairy was transferred and she continued to produce goat cheese.
Her attorney, Matt Bromund, said she had a license for the manufacture of unpasteurized goat cheese until 2008-09. Later in 2009, an inspector told her she needed to make adjustments to some equipment.
“Sharon decided at that point that until she had resolved the outstanding legal matters, she would no longer manufacture cheese,” Bromund said, referring to Ventura County law enforcement raids on her farm in December 2008 and again in 2009. “She only sold cheese she had previously made under the license.”
But she temporarily continued to keep and milk the goats for Rawesome.
“It’s not illegal to milk goats you own or to milk goats someone else owns,” said Bromund. “It’s only illegal to manufacture cheese or sell milk.”
The 2009 Ventura County case, separate from the new charges in Los Angeles County, remains unresolved. Palmer wasn’t charged by Ventura County with operating without a license after the 2008-09 farm raids, but she said the accusations she did face and the publicity surrounding them hurt her business.
Chris Harman, a Ventura County senior deputy district attorney, has said Palmer was charged with false advertising for selling unpasteurized cheese marked as pasteurized, as well as a number of code violations at Healthy Family Farms.
He said if she fixes the code violations, those charges will be dropped. “However, on the false advertising charge, she has to decide if she pleads guilty or goes to trial,” he said this month.
Palmer, who had 162 goats at one point, said the first two raids resulted in her getting rid of the goat herd in June 2009. She said she only kept 40 goats that were owned by Rawesome.
“Rawesome outright owned those goats,” she said. “They bought the goats, they bought a lot of the dairy equipment, they bought their own jars, they bought the refrigeration unit. They bought everything it took to produce that milk.
“I milked those goats and I fed those goats and I cared for those goats, and every week they would come and collect the milk and take it back to their members.”
Raw-milk enthusiasts argue that unprocessed milk is fresher, full of nutrients and tastier.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, warns that unpasteurized raw milk can cause sickness and even death.
Raw milk and dairy products are not illegal in California, but production and sale of such items is strictly regulated.
After the last raid on the farm in June 2010, Palmer had the Rawesome-owned goats removed from her property. Since then, she has not produced goat’s milk or cheese at the farm, she said.
She said a handful of goats still at her farm are being raised for meat.”Had I known it was such a political hot item, I probably would not have ventured into it,” said Palmer. “Knowing that these people fully understood what they were getting, to me, constitutionally it’s OK. I was giving the milk to the owner of the animal. I wasn’t giving it to somebody down the street.”