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January 9, 2014

Fallout From Embezzlement at Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese: Sadness

Vermont has been beleaguered by embezzlement claims in recent years, including at the Readsboro Central School, the Hardwick Electric Department and the University of Vermont.

This week's news that the former administrator of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese would plead guilty to stealing $185,000 from the program over a six-year period has aggrieved at least two of those who were involved with the program, which dissolved last year.

"It's an extraordinary breach of trust," says Jeff Roberts, a VIAC cofounder who was its principal consultant. "I'm deeply saddened that we created a world-class organization, and for it to end, or for this to be the coda, is just unbelievable."

VIAC was established at UVM in 2004 to provide research and education to the growing cheese-making industry, and it counts several of the state's cheese makers among its alumni. In addition to tuition, the program was funded by a mix of private and federal funds that dried up last year. 

According to court documents, Jody Farnham was altering tuition checks to make herself a co-payee, then depositing some of those funds into a personal account. Because the program's funding came in part from federal money that exceeded $10,000, she is charged with a federal crime.

When those funds stopped last year, an official at UVM announced that an employee was under investigation by police for financial irregularities in the program — but news of Farnham's arrest only came to light two days ago.

"If somebody asked me, would this have made a difference to the institute staying in business, I don't have any idea," says Roberts, who was not privy to the administrative or financial details of the program. "This sure didn't help."

Paul Kindstedt — a UVM professor, author and former VIAC scientist and educator — was still catching up on the news yesterday, but wrote in an email that "my only reaction at this point is shock and sadness."

Roberts laments the technical vacuum that VIAC's absence has left in the state, especially as Vermont was on the road to becoming an international leader in artisanal cheese.

"I have long been arguing for the critical need for financial support of teaching, research and education for all of our Vermont [cheese] producers, as we just don't have enough of it right now," he says. "This was one of the best there was, and there is not another one like this in North America."

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