Dairy farmer's witness concedes problems while defending farm

Hartmann dairy barn
A photo of the exterior of the Hartmann dairy barn in Gibbon, Minn.
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Agriculture

A dairy consultant testifying on behalf of a Gibbon dairy farmer testified in court Friday that he believes "quality milk products and safe products can be produced on that farm."

Farmer Michael Hartmann is in the middle of a trial in Sibley County District Court, seeking to lift a state embargo on the sale of his products.

The Minnesota Agriculture Department claims Hartmann sold E. coli-tainted raw milk, which sickened eight people last spring. Hartmann denies the allegation.

As part of its investigation, the state twice inspected the Hartmann farm. Agriculture department investigators say they found unsanitary conditions, leading to an embargo on food from the farm.

State dairy supervisor Greg Pittman testified that he and other inspectors found rodent droppings, manure contamination and even a dead owl in the Hartmann dairy facilities.

Unpasteurized dairy products
Unpasteurized dairy products from the Hartmann farm are under embargo by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Hartmann's first witness, dairy consultant Timothy Wightman, testified Friday that he saw no milk quality production issues during a visit to the farm last month.

But Wightman also conceded that a bacteria count in a milk sample taken from Hartmann's farm far exceeded federal and state standards.

For Grade A milk, the standard for a "plate count" is no more than 30,000 bacteria. A sample of Hartmann's milk taken by state investigators had a plate count of 850,000 bacteria.

Wightman testified Hartmann had told him that his plate counts were around 11,000.

But under questioning by Hartmann's attorney, Zenas Baer, Wightman cast doubt on the state's handling of the sample. He said bacteria counts can double every 20 minutes if milk's temperature exceeds 45 degrees. The state did not address exactly how the sample was handled.

Wightman also said he thought the Hartmann farm had some "housekeeping issues" that needed to be addressed.

In reviewing photographs of the farm taken by Ag Department inspectors on two occasions this spring, Wightman said he did not like the fact that there was a dead calf pictured outside the milk barn, and a chicken inside the barn, which, he said, can bring in disease.

Dead owl
A dead owl the Agriculture department said was found in the milk barn at the Hartmann dairy farm. The photo is part of the case file compiled by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture against the Hartmann farm.
Photo Courtesy of the Minn. Department of Agriculture

Wightman said both issues could affect the health of the cows, but did not pose a direct risk to the quality of the milk produced on the farm.

Hartmann maintains the state has yet to identify the specific strain of E. coli that caused the illnesses in any food product from his farm. State officials say the rare strain was found in manure and other non-food samples taken from the farm. The state also says some cheese was contaminated with a form of E. coli that can cause illness.

Hartmann maintains his raw milk products are safe, and his attorney, Zenas Baer, said farmers should be able to sell unpasteurized milk.

"Those people who make the conscious choice to buy raw milk do not need the nanny state stepping in between saying, 'How dare you, you cannot buy raw milk ... and consume raw milk," Baer said.

Hartmann wants the embargo lifted, since, he claims, the state has not proven that any of the food is adulterated.

As for the dead owl, Hartmann's attorney said it was killed because it was attacking chickens on the farm. He said the owl was in the process of being disposed of when the state inspectors arrived.

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