Judge declines to hold raw dairy farmer in contempt

Michael Hartmann
Dairy farmer Michael Hartmann stands outside of the Sibley County Courthouse in Gaylord, Minn. in a file photo.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The farmer accused of sickening 15 people with his contaminated raw milk products won a victory in Tuesday as a district court judge in Gaylord dismissed a contempt of court allegation.

After an E. coli outbreak was traced to Hartmann's southern against Michael Hartmann's farm last spring, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture embargoed the food products that Hartmann had in his coolers, ready for sale.

Hartmann challenged the embargo, but it was upheld in court last December. In upholding the embargo, District Court Judge Rex Stacey said he had 'no doubt' that the Hartmann food was responsible for the E. coli illnesses. The judge ordered the embargoed food destroyed.

When state inspectors went to the farm in early January to carry out the judges order, they found that most of the food was gone. The state then asked Judge Stacey to find Hartmann in contempt for not obeying the embargo order.

At today's hearing, Hartmann said he and his extended family ate the food. He said he disposed of any products that were spoiled. He said it was his understanding that while he could not sell the food, he could make personal use of it.

The cache included 100 cases or regular milk, 20 cases of skim milk, 75 pounds of butter and 900 packages of cheese.

In denying Hartmann's request last December to be able to eat the food, Judge Stacey said it was not credible that a family of four could use that much food. But in court today, Hartmann said his four children, nine grandchildren and his brother all helped consume the products.

State Agriculture Department attorneys argued that while it was all right for Hartmann to use the food, he clearly did not follow state instructions on how to do that.

They said he was supposed to get prior permission, and keep a detailed record of the food consumed. The attorneys said when they asked for those records last October, Hartmann did not comply with the request.

In dismissing the contempt charge, Judge Stacey told Hartmann, "I'm going to give you a break here." The judge said he knew that Hartmann's legal problems with the state have put his "back against the wall."

Had he been found in contempt of court, Hartmann could have been assessed a penalty of $250 for each day in contempt. Judge Stacey said by his reckoning that total would be just over $11,000. As part of his ruling though, the judge said he would "erase" that penalty and that Hartmann would not have to pay anything.

The Gibbon-area dairy farmer has been acting as his own attorney since he dismissed his lawyer in December. Hartmann would not answer questions after the court hearing, but he did make a brief statement.

"This is the first baby step in the right direction," he said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a Sherburne County judge declined to find Hartmann in contempt of court. MPR News regrets the error.

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