Our View: Big benefit, small cheese in dairy dispute
February 5, 2013
John Weibel just wants to make small-batch cheese on his ranch in the Elk River Valley. The Routt County Board of Commissioners simply wants him to adhere to the building codes. Weibel said it's not an issue of following the codes but rather a problem with — among other things — how the county classifies agricultural versus commercial uses. The commissioners said processing cheese clearly seems to be a commercial enterprise, not an agricultural one.
While neither side is being unreasonable, the disagreement has demonstrated the need for the county promptly to revisit how it regulates on-farm food production as well as broader agriculture tourism issues, including farm and ranch tours and food production/tasting-based guest ranches. Commissioner Doug Monger said last week that such a review should take place, and we hope the result is sensible reform that encourages small-scale local food production and the growing ag tourism movement it helps to foster.
Weibel's Moon Hill Dairy and Rockin' J Cattle ranch in the Elk River Valley north of Steamboat Springs is the type of agriculture operation that gives hope for the future of Routt County food production, part of the emerging locavore trend that speaks to many people's desire to purchase and consume food that is grown nearby as opposed to being shipped long distances to market. Weibel's interest in making small-batch cheeses led to the construction of a 300-square-foot cheese room adjacent to his nearly 80-year-old barn. But because the county considers the cheese processing a commercial activity, the building code requires that he build a firewall between the cheese room and the barn/milking shed.
Weibel argues that not only is the firewall unnecessary and costly, but many places across the country, including other Colorado counties, classify the processing of farm products on a farm as an agricultural use, not a commercial one. The building codes allow for significant latitude when it comes to agriculture structures, a benefit not afforded commercial structures. Further, Weibel contends that a small-scale dairy operation such as his shouldn't even require a conditional use permit.
We're not as sure as Weibel that the classification issue is as black and white as he sees it, but we respect and admire his determination to transform the way the county, and the commissioners, consider small-scale agriculture operations. It's for that reason that we urge the county to promptly follow through on Monger's proposed review of how Routt County regulates agriculture tourism, including on-farm food production.
The commissioners, and county government as a whole, are tasked with ensuring the health and safety of residents, a responsibility that entails the adoption and enforcement of sensible laws and regulations. Weibel's case is one that, at the very least, calls into question whether existing county regulations are appropriate or if they unreasonably are stifling entrepreneurs like Weibel who could end up bringing significant benefit to Routt County.