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Home Made Foods Bill Stirs Cheese Makers


 The New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed a bill that would make it easier for the smallest farmers to break even. If it becomes law it would allow residents to sell some home-made baked-goods, preserves, and cheese at home or at farmers’ markets.  

When the homemade foods bill came out of a House committee, it had unanimous support.

It sits in a political sweet spot: both Democrats who want to support local foods and Republicans who want smaller government like the idea of deregulating small farmers.

It lets people sell less than $10,000 a year in home-made food and produce less than twenty pounds a day of hard cheese, without a license.  

The bill was modified before being sent to the house floor to say unlicensed cheeses must be labeled as such, and they must be aged 60-days before selling. These rules were 

 Barnstead Republican Guy Comtois, the bill’s sponsor, says it’s aimed at giving new farmers a running start before they have to pay for a license.

"It’s tough to start off at 100 miles an hour," Comtois says, "so it does not do away with licensing, it just gives somebody that’s coming out of the gate the chance to find out is this going to be doable or am I just gonna stay with the 20 gallons a day."

Kathy and Joel Wotton from Ossipee are one family who have been watching the bill’s progress closely. They keep a small homestead, where they produce most of their own food: vegetables, baked goods, pigs, rabbits, chickens, and cows. They sell un-pasteurized milk from their two cows, who put out a little less than ten gallons a day.

It’s already legal to sell less than 20 gallons a day of raw milk in New Hampshire; it isn’t legal is to turn that milk into cheese, which the Wottons found out last summer.

"We received a cease and desist in the mail," says Kathy Wotton, "We had seen the part of the bill that had said we could sell aged cheese made from raw milk, we missed the part that said you needed the dairy sanitation license."

The Wotton’s farm was one of several  in the state the department of Health and Human services told to cut-it-out. Kathy says she doesn’t want to name names, but after the letters went out, some unlicensed cheese-makers tried to get around the rules by labeling their cheese as “not for human consumption.”

The Wottons say they don’t make enough off cheese to warrant spending a lot of money to build the sterile cheese room they would need to get a license.

So, if the home-made foods bill becomes law it will be a make a big difference for the family’s checkbook.  

"That’s huge for us," Kathy Wotton says, "Milk has a short shelf life anyway, and if you don’t do something with it and you don’t have enough customers that day to buy it, you either pour it out or feed it to the pigs."

But not everyoneis a fan of this bill. Licensed cheese-makershave been vocal in their disapproval, and say it’s dangerous to let people sell cheese made in possibly unsanitary conditions.

Just a few miles down the road from the Wotton Farm, in Wolfeboro, is the Via Lactea Dairy, a small, but licensed, goat cheese farm. Owners Jenny and Andy Tapper say they started out just like the Wottons, making cheese in their kitchen, before they became licensed and started getting their milk tested for pathogens.

When she thinks back on that time, Jenny Tapper says she never realized the risks she was taking.

"Just knowing how we did it, I think it’d be pretty risky, now that we’re set up to run a clean operation, we would never go back to doing it the other way." Tapper says, "Hand-milking, not being able to cool the milk quickly, and then just not being able to keep things clean enough, is just kind of a recipe for disaster... eventually."

Tapper says getting licensed was the smartest thing she ever did. It let her sell to restaurants and grocery stores, and actually produce enough cheese to make a decent living.

She says her goats produce barely more than the 20-gallon-a-day limit, so if this bill becomes law their farm would be as small as a dairy could be and still require a license.  The idea of a farm around the same size as theirs selling cheese totally unsupervised is a little scary to her.

She says, "that’s quite a lot of cheese to be putting out in the market, and if they’re only marketing to farmers markets and from their homes, I’m not sure they’d be able to get rid of that amount of cheese."

But the bill’s promoters point out that contaminated cheese has come out of licensed facilities, and that knowing your farmer is really the only way to be sure that your product is safe.

Kathey Wotton says she has the best quality control team around: her own family.

"We eat, we taste every batch that we make, I never know is this gonna be a wheel that we’re gonna use when we have company over at our house or when the law goes through will it be a wheel that we’ll be selling," Wotton says.

The bill still must pass the Senate, but is unlikely to face stiff opposition. .

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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