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'Your honor, 1,400 pounds of cheese is gone.' 'Maybe mice ate it.'

Michael Hartmann's dairy farm is a few miles south of Gibbon, Minn. Dan Browning/ Minneapolis Star Tribune

GAYLORD, MINN. - The judge wanted answers, and rebel raw milk farmer Michael Hartmann faced 30 days in jail and fines of $11,250 for contempt of court if he didn't deliver them.

Where was the trove of food that state regulators sought to destroy last year? What happened to the 100 cases of raw milk, the 1,400 pounds of cheese?

Hartmann's answer: His family ate much of it. Stuff that spoiled got fed to the hogs or otherwise thrown out.

But, he insisted, none of it was sold to the public.

Against the wishes of the state Agriculture Department, which argued that no family could consume so much, state district Judge Rex Stacey declined to find Hartmann in contempt of court.

"I'll take you at your word that your family consumed it," Stacey said, adding later that Hartmann had been a "perfect gentleman" in a court case stemming from a disease outbreak that state regulators traced to raw milk from Hartmann's Gibbon farm.

Last year, eight people got sick with E. coli O157:H7, while another seven people became ill with other bugs that cause diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Hartmann has claimed that his raw milk, which isn't pasteurized to kill pathogens, wasn't at fault.

But Stacey rejected that contention in a December ruling, saying dairy products from his farm were made under "insanitary conditions.'

At the time, Stacey also ordered the state Agriculture Department to destroy food it seized last spring from Hartmann's farm, including 100 cases of raw milk, 20 cases of skim milk, 125 tubs of yogurt, 76 cases of butter and a big load of cheese. The seized food had remained at the farm.

But in January, when state agriculture regulators went back to destroy it, much of it was gone.

Stacey opened Thursday's hearing by telling Hartmann that he'd racked up $11,250 in court penalties since January because of the missing food. "Just tell me where the product is, and I'll wipe it clean," he said of the penalties.

Stacey added a stick to the carrot: 30 days in jail if Hartmann refused.

Hartmann told the judge the raw milk and skim milk was fed to his hogs or tossed out. "I couldn't sell it or even give it away."

Some yogurt was thrown out, some eaten by his family. He told the court his family is a large one -- four kids, nine grandchildren and his parents. Going through 76 cases of butter "is nothing for us," he said.

Kim Middendorf, an attorney for the state, argued that a court order from last summer didn't allow Hartmann's family to eat the food and required him to contact the state if he destroyed any of it.

Stacey said he was under the impression the court order did allow Hartmann's family to eat the seized product. "What do you want me to do?" Stacey said to Middendorf.

"We would like Mr. Hartmann to be found in contempt," she replied.

"Isn't it enough that I ruled in your favor?" he said, referring to his December edict.

Middendorf then argued that no family could eat as much as Hartmann's did. "Your honor, 1,400 pounds of cheese is gone."

"Maybe mice ate it," Stacey replied, eliciting chuckles from the courtroom, including the state's attorneys.

Stacey later told the courtroom that Hartmann is a hard worker who's "up against the wall ... I don't want to throw him in jail."