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To Your Health!: Small farmers, beware of Big Government

December 14, 2011

Vernon Hershberger in July 2010. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

By Richard S. Gubbe

Small farmers across the country, beware, your local authorities and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are out to put you out of business.

Raids have taken place against small farmers in Maine, Pennsylvania, Nevada, California and Wisconsin against farmers for a variety of reasons, including selling organic and raw foods, as well as the sale and distribution of raw milk.

While it is legal in Illinois to buy raw milk at a farm, protests have sprung up, including the raw milk protest held in Chicago last week without incident. A half-dozen mothers reportedly transported raw milk from Wisconsin to Chicago, where they accepted payment for some of the milk and passed out the rest to demonstrators protesting FDA regulations. A previous rally in Maryland was held without incident last month.

But while the peaceful rally was held in Independence Park in Chicago last week, Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger was charged by the state’s Department of Justice with four counts, all misdemeanors, for laws he allegedly broke dating prior to July 2010. Also, Amish farmer Daniel Allgyer was arrested recently in Pennsylvania for selling raw milk in Maryland to a food club.

Why indiscriminately torment Mennonite and Amish farmers who run farm co-ops for organic foods and raw milk, you ask?

Simply put, this is a show of power by government agencies to thrust their mighty will upon the people. While the call for less government is heard over and over again at state and federal levels and promised in debates, state and federal governing bodies have found the time to impale small, organic farmers.

There is one member of Congress who is questioning the role of the FDA after a spate of raids from coast to coast.

Small farm and raw milk advocates have support from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who wrote in November to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg questioning the agency’s recent enforcement actions against small farmers while lauding their inaction against some raw milk advocates who have distributed their dairy products across state lines.

Pingree said she believed the FDA’s lack of action on individuals who purchase and transport raw milk is a “step in the right direction,” but she also “continues to have concerns about some of the practices of the FDA.”

In Pingree’s Nov. 18 letter, she wrote: “During tight budget times, it appears that the Agency has chosen to commit scarce resources to activities like farm raids and what many believe to be overly zealous enforcement of the ban on the interstate sale of raw milk. When consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and that it’s safe, why does the FDA choose to put so much energy into these enforcement activities aimed at small farmers? It also doesn’t make sense to me that, given the numerous food safety scares involving large-scale producers, resources are being diverted to prevent consumers from choosing the type of milk that they want to drink.”

How about more inspections of large processing plants to avert E-Coli outbreaks?

Hershberger has been fighting this fight for a while now, as reported in TRRT last week. Readers can find a YouTube video of the serving of the summons on his Sauk County farm by a county sheriff, even though the local law enforcement agency didn’t take the action.

This shows why we, the common people, will have to stand up on our own instead of relying on the people who are supposed to have the power to give us justice,” Hershberger said.

The state charged him with a retail food violation between Aug. 6, 2009, and June 3, 2010, a raw milk producer violation between Feb. 15, 2010, and June 3, 2010, a dairy plant violation between Feb. 15, 2010, and June 3, 2010, and a “holding order” violation between June 2, 2010, and July 8, 2010. Hershberger ignored the raid and went back to business as usual of supplying small amounts of organic products to members, or in his view, fellow owners.

Hershberger has a Jan. 4 court date. The summons was signed by Wisconsin State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

Pete Kennedy, an attorney for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, told the Baraboo News Republic last week: “My question is: Where’s the injury here? It looks like the only injury that is going to occur is if he’s prevented from distributing … and people don’t get access to this food.”

Hershberger’s Grazin’ Acres farm in Loganville was raided soon after then-Gov. Jim Doyle (D) vetoed a bill that would have allowed for limited sales of raw milk in Wisconsin. State officials have said the case had nothing to do with the debate over raw milk, but rather a licensing spat.

Hershberger continues to distribute products and says consumers are leasing animals and consume the products derived from them, exempting him from state licensing requirements. The complaint makes no mention of his current arrangement, only the past, despite the fact current state law provides an exception for “incidental sales” of raw milk from farmer to consumer.

Hershberger has never laid claim to being a retailer.

Many state regulatory agencies and public health officials say raw milk exposes people to disease-causing pathogens. Advocates say pasteurized milk destroys enzymes, hormones and bacteria that have health benefits.

Why wasn’t he charged locally? Sauk County District Attorney Pat Barrett told the News Republic her decision to request a special prosecutor in the case, which she said has “statewide implications,” was because of caseload pressures, not politics.

There is no reason for us to tackle a case that would be so time consuming when the AG’s office has such expertise and is ready and willing to assist,” she said.

Why the fuss by state and federal agencies over little farms, raw milk and organic foods?

Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, was called out by Pingree for his past association as a lobbyist and a former executive of the Monsanto Corporation, which backs only large-scale farming.

Pingree said in her letter to the FDA: “There is a perception on the part of many people that it may be difficult for him to remain neutral on issues like local food issues, food sovereignty and food safety issues that reflect the scale of the producer. Would it not better serve all types and sizes in the United States to have someone in this position with less of a perceived bias toward large-scale, genetically-modified agriculture?”

There has been a movement recently to oust Taylor.

Meanwhile, the money spent on raids and court cases by states and the FDA certainly could be used in a more productive manner. Quit picking on the little guy.

Richard Gubbe is an award-winning journalist of 38 years, public relations specialist and Reiki Master Teacher. He is a long-time Rockford resident who has taught preventive health, visualization and Reiki at Rock Valley College since 2003.

From the Dec. 14-20, 2011, issue

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