I first met Vernon Hershberger in 2010 when this mess of milk began. I was moved to find a farmer who raised organic food for his family and for his co-op of local growers and consumers. Vernon has a small shop on his land in the heart of Wisconsin and I do mean small, but full of the best the human body can obtain to sustain life. Vernon pays his taxes, commits no crimes, has a firm belief in God and just wants his family to grow up as peace-loving citizens who do good deeds for others.
Vernon and his family are Mennonites in Loganville, Wisconsin, just west of the quaint town of Baraboo. For those who haven't had the privilege of ever visiting Baraboo, the town hasn't changed much since it was a hippie colony in the 1960s and '70s. The area is known for hiking, fishing, camping and everything else the great outdoors has to offer. Mennonites in the area are good farmers. The main difference between Mennonites and the Amish is electricity and engines.
Vernon raises his milk cows and cattle in an organic way but uses modern tools to accomplish his tasks. His boys and girls work in the fields, barefoot. Vernon raises organic cows from organic birth lines. He doesn't even inoculate his cows for disease. Because he has so few, he says they never get sick.
Vernon's dairy cows produce healthy raw milk. Some people join his co-op just for the milk that gets delivered across the state. Many clamor for its health benefits and its part in keeping disease and illness at bay. Vernon even puts milk that may be spoiled back into his land to create more grass for his cows to eat. Yes, good farmers feed their cows grass, as was intended, not given corn to get fat. Vernon uses no growth hormones or antibiotics and his land is pristine.
And yet at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Vernon is a wanted, evil man who is circumventing state law by operating a dairy without proper licensing. You see the Dairy State only believes in pasteurized milk, milk altered by temperature to ensure no e-coli is present. About half the states in the U.S. ban raw milk sales.
Wisconsin took issue with that and raided Vernon's farm in the summer of 2010. They taped his refrigerators shut and acted as if his organic grocery was a crime scene. The incident, in which Vernon was held at gunpoint in his living room in front of his young family, was captured on video and has been used in two different YouTube presentations for all the world to see.
This is how Vernon's camp describes the incident.
"On June 2, 2010, representatives of the DATCP conducted a raid at the Vernon Hershberger farm. DATCP agents intentionally destroyed nearly 300 gallons of fresh milk by pouring blue dye into the bulk tank, claiming the milk was 'adulterated and misbranded' — even though there was no logical, factual, or scientific basis for this conclusion. The milk was unpasteurized, as is all milk on all farms that is stored
in bulk tanks. The agents then placed a holding order on all the fresh, wholesome food in coolers on the property, most of which belonged to members of the Hershberger’s private buying club, and some of which belonged to the Hershberger family. Mr. Hershberger then faced a serious dilemma: allow the wholesome, perishable food to go to waste while he engaged in lengthy administrative wrangling with DATCP or allow the rightful owners of the property to take it from the coolers.
"Mr. Hershberger followed his conscience and allowed the owners to retrieve their food. Vernon Hershberger’s religious principles prevented him from standing by, while nutritious food rotted."
After the raid, Vernon went back to selling raw milk and everything else good for you. The state took a lot of heat from the public. Vernons's wife miscarried that fall, about the same time the state submitted a report for possible prosecution. No agency, state or county, immediately followed up with four state charges for operating a dairy withou proper licensing.
The state came after him with the full force of the law. He was booked, jailed and told not to sell. Despite a mandate from state court that inspections of his farm be allowed by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), Hershberger turned away three state officlas at his farm on Feb. 9. The refusal of access is in direct violation of the court order issued the week prior at a county hearing stating the Hershberger must abide by the following, "No impeding, obstruction or interference with any Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) inspection."
The bold move was captured on video and aired on YouTube.
That only made his group of supporters stronger. Now they plan to use a First Amendment defense to say his religious freedoms were violated by his abiding by God's law to not waste good food, or in this case, milk.
The state said Hershberger can not sell any food products without a proper license. He claims he is not a business but rather a group-owned co-op. He says he is just the caretaker of the animals and the land. The state also said he may not manufacture or process any dairy products, nor sell any without a proper license. The state said he also may not have anyone else operate his farm or work in any room or building on his property. To that order, he has remained defiant. His workers are the owners of the cows, he says.
He fights on with a defense team sponsored by donors and thousands of people across the country pledging their support. There is much more at stake here than just Raw Milk Rights. The drama continues Monday, March 18, with a First Amendment Rights hearing in Baraboo at the courthouse. The previous hearings were supported by a large gatherings of supporters from around the country.
Hershberger will argue that his religious beliefs prevented him from challenging the DATCP. This is what Hershberger says is his right on this Earth. "Scripture contains the following admonition in Matthew 5:38-41: '… And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.' The Bible teaches that we should not be aggressors in court actions by suing people or filing counter claims (“cross bills”, below), even though it is possible by course of law to force off the coat from a man's back. We are not to marvel at the matter, but, in such a case, rather than go to the law by way of revenge, rather than exhibit a cross bill, or stand out to the utmost, in defense of that which is our undoubted right; rather we are to let him even take our cloak also. If the matter be small, which we may lose without a considerable damage to our families, it is good to submit to it for the sake of peace. It will not cost us so much to buy another cloak, as it will cost us by course of law to recover that; and therefore unless we canst get it again by fair means, it is better to let him take it.
“Thus, Scripture requires me to avoid initiating conflict. I cannot be the aggressor in a lawsuit. I could not request the hearing provided by the administrative rules and referenced on the State’s holding order even though the findings of fact in the order were incorrect, because it would have been tantamount to suing the State and would have violated this Scriptural prohibition on initiating conflict."
With few exceptions, Wisconsin prohibits the sale of raw milk to the public because it may contain bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. But raw-milk advocates have repeatedly pressed for state legislation that would legalize the sales.
There was a bill to legalize sales in Wisconsin in 2010, but then-Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed it when it came to his desk, succumbing to a powerful dairy lobby that usually wins in Dairy Land.
The FDA alleges that dairy products are among the top contributors to food-borne illnesses and that raw milk is the most dangerous. Dairy products ranked second to leafy vegetables, resulting in 1.3 million illnesses and 10 percent of food-borne-illness deaths from 1998 through 2008. Dairy products reportedly accounted for the most hospitalizations, 16 percent, followed by leafy vegetables, 14 percent, poultry, fruits and nuts. But a CDC study published a year ago claimed the rate for disease outbreaks caused by raw dairy products was 150 times higher than for pasteurized milk. That study said that milk consumption was responsible for 121 disease outbreaks, causing 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths from 1993 to 2006 - and that raw milk products were the cause of 60 percent of the outbreaks.
Laarge dairy farmers say one of the biggest arguments against legalizing raw milk sales has been the damage that could be inflicted on the state's $26 billion dairy industry should there be an illness outbreak.
The Food and Drug Administration has the power since 2011 to decide if food or drink is harmful, with credible evidence or not.
Farmers with children who drink raw milk report fewer illnesses. Others swear by its benefits even to risk contamination.
Organic milk, although processed, contains valuable CLAs that corn-fed cows lack and provide better absorption of Vitamin D.. But drinking raw milk now is regarded as an alternative lifestyle, something dangers, yet precedes pasteurized milk by thousands of years.
What constitutes a family farm also is under dispute in Wisconsin. Vernon Hershberger, who owns and operates Grazin' Acres in Loganville, can't form a co-op of people with like minds and tastes. If you pay a yearly "lease" fee to be part of the co-op, your money goes toward ownership of a cow. Therefore, you are part-owner of the farm and entitled to raw milk. You can also work on the farm to keep costs down. Who, exactly, are they hurting?
What should be a simple task, selling raw milk to his neighbors, has made Vernon famous, fame he did not seek.
Who loses? Small farms and people who like and benefit from raw milk. What we all are losing is our right to consume what we want.
If, indeed, we truly seek less government intervention in our lives, then people should be able to consume a product they feel is safe. Raw milk is not cocaine. It is not a drug that needs to be regulated. People who purchase raw milk do depend on the local farmer to give it to them without e-coli in it and have to live with their choice if they get sick. People know the supposed dangers and choose to buy raw milk for themselves and their children.
Our right to choose is being desecrated by more government and powerful lobbies. The rural areas of Wisconsin are dominated by old right-wing republicans who claim they want less goverment interference, and yet, they attack a Mennonite and his family.
Are there no better ways to spend taxpayer money than to go after a Small Farmer and his merry band of raw milk drinkers? What's next, a wanted poster of Vernon milking a cow?
See www.vernonhershberger.com for more info.