One Small Win for Raw Milk
Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger, with his wife, Erma, defended his small raw-dairy farm last week. Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Associated Press
By Kelsey Gee
Raw-milk proponents celebrated a Wisconsin farmer’s acquittal on three of four counts related to selling unpasteurized milk and cheese, bolstering their hopes of legalizing the products in America’s Dairyland.
Jurors found Vernon Hershberger, a 41-year-old Loganville, Wis., farmer, innocent of producing milk without a license, selling milk and cheese products without a license, and operating a retail establishment without a license. He was found guilty of one count of breaking a holding order issued by the state in June 2010, which barred him from moving any of the food he produced without a license.
The verdict means Mr. Hershberger can continue to sell his farm’s products to members of the buying club he started, said one of his attorneys, Elizabeth Rich. He faces as long as a year in jail and $10,000 in fines for the one guilty count; a sentencing date has yet to be announced.
“This is a huge win for food rights,” said Liz Reitzig, a founder of Farm Food Freedom Coalition, a group advocating for greater consumer access to natural, unprocessed food. The case “should give small farmers renewed courage to continue to operate within their communities.”
Milk is commonly pasteurized to remove harmful bacteria, but advocates of raw milk say the process also wipes out many beneficial nutrients. Raw milk can be consumed on the farm but can’t be sold legally in many states, including Wisconsin.
The case followed a nearly four-year investigation of Mr. Hershberger and his farm, Grazin Acres LLC, by the state, the No. 2 dairy producer after California. During deliberations, which capped a five-day trial in Sauk County Circuit Court, dozens of farmers, food-rights activists and Hershberger family members filled the courthouse, sharing raw milk from Mr. Hershberger’s farm.
Some 30 states allow raw milk sales for human consumption, according to the Food and Drug Administration, although federal rules prohibit the movement of these products across state lines.
“To see the hearts that I’ve touched…that’s bigger to me than the win we had,” said Mr. Hershberger, who says he received words of encouragement from around the world.
Last week, Minnesota officials announced that 25 people were sickened in an outbreak of salmonella from unpasteurized cheese. Minnesota law permits raw milk sales on the farm at which the milk was produced.
Many mainstream dairies and public-health officials have long warned of raw milk’s health concerns and see that, as well as its potential to steal away market share, as threats to the industry. “It’s impossible to make an unsafe product safe,” said Shawn Pfaff, spokesman for the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition, an industry lobbying group opposed to raw-milk sales. “We strongly urge lawmakers to keep it illegal to sell raw milk in Wisconsin to protect the state’s $27 billion dairy industry and the public health of its residents.”
The state’s case consisted of dozens of photographs and video clips supporting the contention that Mr. Hershberger was operating a retail food establishment, with shelves and refrigerators stocked with Grazin Acres-labeled products, as well as items from neighboring farms. Mr. Hershberger and his attorneys argued he didn’t need a license to share his food with about 200 members he considered to be part owners in the farm.
Mr. Hershberger wasn’t charged with selling raw milk. The judge said he didn’t want the case to turn into a debate about the merits or dangers of raw milk, and prohibited attorneys from discussing it.
Write to Kelsey Gee at firstname.lastname@example.org