GAYLORD, MINN. - Almost 100 raw-milk proponents packed a Sibley County courthouse on Tuesday to watch their hero, dairy farmer Michael Hartmann, fight state regulators who consider him a blatant scofflaw.

What they got was a day full of tedious technical testimony -- much of it having to do with milking equipment and cow manure.

Hartmann is trying to get the state to give back hundreds of cases and tubs of dairy products that were seized by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The state wants to destroy the milk, cream and ice cream, claiming it's been adulterated.

The state "embargoed" the food after an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in May that was linked to raw milk from Hartmann's farm in Gibbon. Eight people were sickened, and several were hospitalized.

Raw milk is unpasteurized, meaning it hasn't been treated with heat to kill harmful bacteria. Public health authorities cast a wary eye on it for that reason.

State law allows for "occasional" sales at the farm where it's produced, though Hartmann appears to have also distributed his in the Twin Cities.

Advocates of raw milk believe the beverage has health qualities that pasteurized milk lacks. They were out in force at Tuesday's hearing, including about a dozen children who came with their parents.

"Raw milk -- it's for real" and "Drink it up" said the homemade T-shirt of one elementary school-aged child.

Hartmann hadn't taken the stand as of late Tuesday afternoon.

In addition to the embargo, the Agriculture Department has ordered Hartmann to discontinue much of his food production because of allegedly unsanitary conditions at his farm.

The state spent the day Tuesday trying to make that case.

Stacy Holzbauer, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control, described Hartmann's barn in her testimony as "dark and dingy" and noted its "overall uncleanliness." Holzbauer participated in a May 26 search of the farm.

She noted copious amounts of manure in the barn. But Zenas Baer, Hartmann's attorney, countered that, "where you have cows, you have manure."

Baer said the state's claims of unsanitary conditions at Hartmann's farm were arbitrary and that some of the alleged infractions could be found at any dairy farm.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003