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Michael Schmidt won a three-year legal fight to operate a cow-share operation on Thursday. The arrangement allows members to buy shares in a cow in exchange for raw milk.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Ontario dairy farmer Michael Schmidt has been found not guilty of a stream of charges relating to a controversial raw-milk operation he runs.

In a judgment that ran nearly three hours, a Newmarket Justice of the Peace said the cow-sharing operation Mr. Schmidt runs out of his farm near Durham, Ont., does not violate the province's milk-marketing or public-health regulations.

The judgment is the culmination of a three-year legal battle that has made Mr. Schmidt a star in a growing international food-rights movement fuelled by mistrust of the industrial food system.

Today's ruling means that raw, or unpasteurized, milk produced by Mr. Schmidt's cows - heritage Canadiennes bred near the town of Durham, Ont. - can legally be distributed to the small network of consumers who have bought "cow shares" in exchange for access to the animals' unprocessed milk.

Although it is not illegal to consume raw milk in Canada, selling or distributing violates laws that require pasteurization of most commercial milk products.

The Schmidt case, which began when his farm was raided in 2006, has captivated food-rights academics and advocates in Canada, and around the world, who argue the court's decision will ripple well beyond the raw-milk community. At its crux, they argue, the case is really about the extent to which consumers should be free to buy foods, however rarefied, and whether constitutional rights stretch as far as the grocery basket, farmer's market and the people who own shares in - but do not live on - food-producing farms.

Farm families have for decades consumed the fruits - and liquids - of their labour, including livestock butchered on the farm and milk straight from the cow. But demand for raw milk off the farm has grown significantly in recent years with concerns over processed and mass-produced foods.

That upward trend set off alarms for health officials. Many have attempted to block farmers from distributing raw milk, which has a higher risk than pasteurized products of carrying harmful pathogens, including listeria, salmonella, campylobacter and E.coli 0157.

Earlier this month, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control issued a warning about fecal contamination in raw milk products stemming from an ongoing investigation into Chilliwack's Home on the Range dairy, one of seven raw-milk producers in that province.

Still, chefs, urban food culturists and people with health problems have been turning to farmers for high-quality, farm-fresh foods, including milk.

In 10 U.S. states, including California, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New Mexico, licensed farmers can sell raw milk with a warning label at grocery stores. Other parts of the country have cow-share or farm-share programs.