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Cook County dairy farm locked in legal battle with state

A Cook County farmer will appear in State District Court in Grand Marais on Monday, defending his refusal to allow a state inspection he doesn't want and contends his farm doesn't need.

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A Cook County farmer will appear in State District Court in Grand Marais on Monday, defending his refusal to allow a state inspection he doesn't want and contends his farm doesn't need.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is seeking to have the court fine the farmer, David Berglund, $500 per day until he complies with the inspection order for his farm, Lake View Natural Dairy.

Berglund first squared off with the agriculture department last October, after officials with the agency learned of his farm and that he'd been selling raw milk and other raw milk products directly to customers who visit the dairy.

Since then, citing a more than 100-year-old passage in the Minnesota Constitution that allows a person to peddle products of their farm without a license, Berglund has refused to allow inspectors onto his property.

The Cook County Sheriff's Office is caught in the middle, having been asked to assist in the enforcement of the inspection process. It has maintained that it will not get involved until it is compelled to do so.

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"Right now it's a civil action, and we're going to remain neutral," Sheriff Pat Eliasen said.

The case is drawing a growing measure of regional and national attention for its converging issues including individual rights and organic farming. Berglund is not commenting to the media, but his attorney Zenas Baer explained the fertile legal territory into which the case has treaded.

"It's the fundamental right of us as citizens to engage in a private transaction without having the nanny state peering over our shoulder saying, 'Thou shalt not do this,' " Baer said.

According to documents filed by Baer with the court, the Berglund farm is more than 100 years old, having been started by Berglund's forebearers, who immigrated from Sweden. Located on Cook County Road 56, off the Gunflint Trail northeast of Grand Marais, it features 75-80 head of cattle and some pigs and chickens on more than 700 acres, some owned by Berglund and some leased. The farm sells raw milk, cream, skim milk, butter, yogurt, beef and eggs to customers who visit the farm.

Greg Gentz is a customer of the farm. A former Minneapolis police officer and Cook County sheriff's deputy, Gentz said he visits the farm for his milk about twice weekly. He was exposed to the raw milk when he and his family were vacationers to the area. Now a full-time resident, he's been a vocal supporter of Lake View Natural Dairy and what he believes is its right to operate without state involvement.

"I liked the taste of it better," Gentz said of the milk. "I knew it was unpasteurized. But I'm not a milk advocate or a raw milk advocate, I'm an advocate for people's individual rights and the government respecting the limits of its authority. That was dear to me in 15 years of law enforcement - as much as getting the arrest, it was just as important I wasn't violating people's rights."

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture would not comment to the News Tribune on the pending court case. But it did make Nicole Neeser, director of its dairy and food inspection division, available to speak to the state's authority over dairy farms. She said about 93 percent of the dairy farms in the state are inspected and licensed as grade-A farms, with their products able to be used for bottled milk, yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese. Other products - cheese, ice cream and butter, primarily - can use milk that comes from grade-B farms. Regardless, most dairy farms, Neeser said, are grade-A and visited twice annually for unannounced inspections that focus primarily on sanitization.

"The (state) statute requires all milk that is used to produce products that humans consume be pasteurized with the exception of raw milk sold directly to consumers right from the farm," Neeser said.

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That would appear to accommodate Lake View Natural Dairy, but Baer posited that it's the salt added to butter, the cultures added to produce yogurt and the cream taken from skim milk that are the roots of the state's grievance against the farm.

"I'm not entirely clear as to why they are pursuing action against Berglund," Baer said. "He has a farm where he raises cows and sells products of the farm on a self-serve basis. I believe part of the issue with the department is the processing of food."

Lake View Natural Dairy appeared on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's radar sometime in 2014, shortly after it explored the possibility of selling its milk to a processor - which the farm never did pursue.

Gentz said that a $500-per-day fine or forcing the farm to include costly pasteurization equipment would put the farm out of business and ruin a good thing for its customers. He's secured 148 signatures from farm customers for use in Berglund's defense.

"The state can't legislate away constitutional protection," Gentz said. "The people who are customers of the farm know the risk (of raw milk) stated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. It's my choice to do business with them."

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREFOOD
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