Copyright Fillmore GazetteOn the morning of December 18, a week before Christmas, a woman showed up at Sharon Palmer’s Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula, CA, wanting to purchase some goat cheese—for an upcoming holiday party, she said. What happened next was that Sharon found herself in serious trouble, though there are two versions of exactly how she got there.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department posted its version of events via a press release, which stated in part that “a detective from the Agricultural Crimes Unit and investigators from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Milk and Dairy Food Safety Branch, Ventura County Environmental Health Department, Ventura County Weights and Measures, and Ventura County Code Enforcement [that’s five agencies] took part in an undercover operation focused on purchasing illegally produced and potentially unsafe goat cheese being produced at the location and being sold at farmers markets.”

The release said Sharon was “arrested and charged with Food and Agricultural Code Sections 35283(a)—Processing Milk or Milk Products without Pasteurization, 35283(b)—and Processing for Resale Milk or Milk Products without a License. Palmer was booked into the Ventura County Pre-Trial Detention Facility.” It also included dire warnings about raw milk–“miscarriage…swollen neck glands and blood stream infection.”

A local paper, the Ventura County Star, published a summary of the sheriff’s news release, and a reader noted the link on this blog shortly after the paper’s account came out.

What struck me was that, nowhere in any of this limited information, did we get Sharon Palmer’s version of the events. It seems the Ventura County Star didn’t even try to contact her.

I’ve tried to piece the story together, and piecing is what I’ve had to do. Sharon, who has been producing a variety of farm products for the past five years (see this profile in a local paper) has been reluctant to talk about the situation out of fear she’ll anger police and prosecutors. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which has become involved on her behalf, has been reluctant to discuss it as well, until the legal parameters of what’s occurring become more clearly spelled out.

But based on the various conversations I’ve had with Sharon, along with others who have been trying to figure this case out, Sharon seems somehow to have become a target of extremely aggressive law enforcement tactics by Ventural County officials, to the extent she was thrown in jail and then prevented from selling product–essentially put at least temporarily out of business. Here is what seems to have happened, from her perspective:

Sometime early on December 18, the stranger I mentioned at the start of this post appeared at the farm, seemingly very anxious to purchase goat cheese. Knowing that her dairy’s license prohibited retail sales and limited her to selling her cheeses only at farmers markets, Sharon refused the request. When the woman persisted, talking about the upcoming holiday gathering, Sharon decided to give the woman two pounds of cheese, and refused to take payment.

The cheese she gave the woman—in fact all the cheese at the Wheeler Canyon facility—was made at her old licensed facility, a 30-acre farm in Fillmore. She had just moved to the larger farm in Santa Paula a few weeks earlier, but because she didn’t yet have a license to produce cheese there–her pasteurizer had been damaged in the move–she was relying on inventory she had previously made and frozen in the old licensed facility. While the stranger, an undercover investigator, distracted Sharon, other investigators were at a nearby farmers market operated by Sharon’s niece, and confiscated about $1,000 of her cheese.

Shortly after she gave the stranger the cheese, Sharon left her farm to run some errands. About twenty minutes down the road, she was pulled over by a Ventura County sheriff and told she was under arrest, handcuffed, and placed in the police cruiser. She was asked if officials could inspect her facility, implying that if everything was okay, she would be released. She agreed.

The cruiser returned to her farm, where a caravan of about a dozen police and other cars, including a crime unit van, were parked —representatives of the five agencies mentioned in the sheriff’s press release.

Sharon, who is a single mom, was taken out of the police cruiser, still handcuffed. When her two daughters, ages 12 and 13, and son, age 9, saw their mom, they got hysterical. The various officials  taking videos didn’t care–they kept her standing in handcuffs with her children for two hours while they searched her cheesemaking facility.

The officials wanted to know where her pasteurizer was. She told them she didn’t have one at this facility yet—all her processing had been done at her old facility. She showed them her license for the old facility (police removed her handcuffs temporarily so she could retrieve the documents), and requested they call the regular CDFA dairy inspector who oversaw her facility, to corroborate her version.

A female official told Sharon it was a felony to sell raw milk, and that she was under arrest, and would have to accompany the sheriff for booking. They allowed her to call a relative to immediately come over and care for her three children, and feed the 100 goats. But they had no warrant–no paperwork of any kind that I can determine–to show Sharon.

It was now about 4 p.m. Sharon was still handcuffed, placed in the cruiser, and taken to the pre-detention facility, where she was placed in a cell. At about 4 a.m., she was released, and told to return at 8 a.m. the day after Christmas, for arraignment. When she did, there were no charges, no file, and no information, and she was told she could leave.

Aside from the uncertainty of what might happen to her, the biggest problem for Sharon has been that she’s been prohibited from selling anything, depriving her of essential ongoing income. She had an application in process for a license for the new facility, but apparently the CDFA has put that on hold, pending resolution of the case against her, which could take months.

The Ventura County Sheriff has handed the case over to the Ventura County District Attorney’s office, and I spoke earlier today with a senior deputy district attorney, Chris Harman, who has been assigned the case. He said he hadn’t even fully reviewed the file yet. He was candid in admitting he knows little about the controversy around raw milk, and seemed genuinely interested in hearing about SB 201, the rationale for consuming raw milk, and the safety of raw milk. I should add as well that other officials, such as from the CDFA and the Venture County Sheriff’s Office, have been very responsive to my requests for information about the status of the case.

By way of background, California’s county officials apparently have wide discretion in the areas of agriculture and public health, apart from state agencies. Local public health officers can close roads, quarantine people, and shut businesses. Sharon seems to have run seriously afoul of the county officials–if you consider the location of her pasteurizer or possible availability of raw goats milk terrible threats to the public order. How else do you explain throwing a mother of young children into jail overnight and shutting down her enterprise, depriving her and her family of all income?