DOWNTOWN — Any publicity is supposedly a good thing, but in the case of Winchester Cheese Co., good publicity turned out to be harmful.
Earlier this month, Glenn Lingle, a Santa Monica software engineer and fan of Winchester Cheese found his family’s favorite cheese vendor to be missing from its usual place at the Main Street Farmers’ Market after approximately 15 years of business.
That’s because Winchester Cheese was banned from selling at the market after AAA’s “Westways” magazine published an article revealing the company no longer owned its own cow herd. The market has strict guidelines meant to protect and promote farmers.
“He is no longer a farmer because he doesn’t own his cows,” Farmers’ Market supervisor Laura Avery said of Winchester. “You have to be the farmer, you have to process your own dairy … in the product that you’re selling. You need to be a farmer.”
Owned by Jules Wesselink, a native of Holland, the Winchester Cheese Co. sold hand-made gouda cheese at the market for over a decade. In 2001, Wesselink sold his herd of dairy cows, but continued to produce cheese from milk purchased from a next-door neighbor.
Jeffery Smoot, general manager for Winchester Cheese, verified that the dairy herd was sold both because it was cheaper to produce cheese using other milk and because Wesselink was getting older and could no longer handle the duties of herd upkeep.
“Nobody ever thought twice about it,” Smoot said of selling the cows. “The person selling their product has to be the producer of the product, and we are the producer of our product. The philosophy of the market is that you have to grow and raise the cows.”
Smoot said they work with the cows directly despite no longer owning them. Though the herd was sold, Wesselink still owned the dairy itself, and the cows that were sold stayed on the land until two years ago, when their new owner went out of business and could no longer lease the dairy land and was forced to take the cows away.
Some cows are still left in the dairy, but there are not nearly enough to support the company, which is why Wesselink’s family gets raw milk from a neighbor.
Winchester Cheese and various other small companies face even larger problems than losing business in small, city markets. Smoot and Avery said the Food and Drug Administration is considering placing a ban on raw milk, which is essentially unpasteurized milk that comes directly from the cow.
Additionally, many small and family-owned dairies are losing business to larger corporations.
“I feel bad in general because I know the dairy industry in California will be obsolete in five years,” Avery said. “All the small, independent dairies are going out of business.”
However, “our Farmers’ Market will not save the small dairies in California,” she added.
Though Avery said she enjoys Winchester’s unique cheese and commends them for making authentic gouda in a way no one else does anymore, she is firm in the market’s decision to ban the company from selling their product.
Avery explained that most of the market is made up of certified farmers, while a small portion is made up of non-certified vendors who are not considered farmers and sell prepared foods or crafts. This is to distinguish small farmers from other vendors and to aid the health and agricultural departments in inspections.
“A milk producer is a certified producer, they have to grow their own product,” she said. “[Wesselink] buys from the guy right next door. … We are not interested or going to be enlarging the non-certified section, to do that would eliminate farmers from the market.”
Despite the regulations, some feel Winchester Cheese has been unfairly singled out by the market.
“They are certainly supporting the neighbor dairy farmer they are getting some of their milk from, but apparently the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market management has decided that there is a certain number of cows they are required to own,” Lingle said. “My family can no longer experience the fine, raw milk artisan cheese we’ve been purchasing from our ‘cheese lady,’ face to face, for years because of an apparent philosophical position that has been taken by the [market] management.”
Customer Karen Pomer finds Avery’s reasoning dubious.
“As a regular customer of Winchester farms at the Sunday market, I am outraged at this unfair development,” she said. “The market’s rationalization is absurd and arbitrary. Leasing some of their cows is the same as a farmer leasing land.”
Smoot urges those who enjoyed the cheese to protest the decision.
“They want us to prove certain things to the market that other cheesemakers have not had to prove,” he said.