Small farmers fight the good fight
By Richard S. Gubbe
The best defense is a good offense. That axiom is proving to be the best strategy for the small farmer in America.
In two instances in neighboring states, the small, organic farmer is taking the initiative while enlisting the help of neighbors as well as local law enforcement to push back after being pushed around.
In Loganville, Wis., the saga of Mennonite farmer Vernon Hershberger has switched from defense to offense after four charges were levied this month. Hershberger has turned the pressure back on the state after being charged with four misdemeanors for selling raw milk and organic foods to his food club.
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 Wednesday, Jan. 11, court date at 1 p.m. The date was originally set a week earlier, but Hersberger asked for a continuance to set up a rally by food club members and by local concerned citizens to be held outside the courthouse, 515 Oak St., in the city of Baraboo, before Court Commissioner Leo Grill.
“We are planning to have a rally before court time, but I am not sure yet to what extent it will be,” Hershberger said in a recent e-mail to his membership. “One thing for sure is that we want all the club members there that can possibly make it. Let’s remember how we are set up. I am a member just the same as the rest of you.”
Hershberger’s Grazin’ Acres farm in Loganville was raided in July 2010 soon after then-Gov. Jim Doyle 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 violation. 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.
“It just so happens that I am the one who takes care of the cows, which we all share in a lease agreement,” Hershberger said. “Let’s remember that by law, to lease is to own and that is why the state is picking on me. We are just completely overwhelmed at the support that has been shown so far and to think that our case has barely started!”
Many state regulatory agencies and public health officials say raw milk exposes people to disease-causing pathogens. Raw milk advocates say pasteurized milk destroys enzymes, hormones and bacteria that have health benefits.
Hershberger is using the club as a springboard of support.
“We have two members besides the club president who are experienced in law who have volunteered to help with the legal paperwork,” Hershberger said. “The way it looks, even if we don’t come out on top as far as the public or the courts are concerned, I am sure that we all together will be winners! Because, after all, we do have the truth on our side! AMEN. You all have been doing a fantastic job so far, and I am sure that you would do a whole lot more if it would ever be needed. I will try to give my opinion, but I am not trying to hold anyone to that opinion. Feel free to think and act according to what you feel is best.”
Hershberger had this to say about why he thinks he is being singled out as a small farmer trying to deliver organic products to the public.
“I strongly believe that the game of the government is to suck the people out of money so they can have control over them,” Hershberger said. “They do that in many, many different ways. A few of them (small farmers) are filing lawsuits, hiring lawyers and attorneys, paying lobbyists. If we can somehow manage to stay out of those snares as much as possible, I think we will be better off.”
The Amish, as well as the Mennonites, who have embraced electrical and mechanical devices to aid in their farming, have always avoided allopathic medicine. Mennonites are slightly more receptive to Western medical practices.
“I agree with you that all of these that I mentioned have their place in our society. But so do the medical doctors,” Hershberger told his membership in an e-mail. “The thing that all of these have in common these days is that they are way, way out of line. They can all be used to our benefit, but they can very easily become a pitfall to just get us farther and farther away from our spiritual and physical freedoms.”
The state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) took issue with the club, which has members scattered across the state, and raided Vernon’s farm. They taped his refrigerators shut and cited it as 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 the world to see.
After the raid, Vernon went back to selling raw milk and everything else good to eat. The county prosecutors took a lot of heat from the public for the raid and backed off. Vernons’s wife miscarried last fall, about the same time the state submitted a report for possible state prosecution.
Then came the charges, soon to follow will come his day in court. If the outcome isn’t to his liking, he will continue to press on, government interference notwithstanding.
“We have had three lawyers make an offer to take our case and help us in this predicament that we are in,” Hershberger said. “We have declined every one of them so far. Maybe in the future we will need them, but as of right now, I think we are better off on our own. We also have had three offers to help us do a lawsuit against the DATCP. We will also decline that. I feel very strongly that we can do a whole lot more by just standing up and keeping the truth above our heads rather than fight for it and think that we have help with it to stay on top. By the way, have you thought who would have to pay for all that? I assume you have, the consumer. I would much rather see more of your money going towards buying quality, local foods for
your families, than to use your hard-earned money to fight for a right which we already have.”
Hershberger isn’t the only small farmer to suffer. There has been a network formed, one that uses the telephone, the Internet and e-mail to unite.
“I got a phone call last night from a local farmer who might be in serious trouble in the very near future,” Hershberger said. “I would suggest that we don’t exhaust our measures of support right away as there are probably a lot of needs coming up that we can’t even imagine as of now. If you do feel to donate funds somewhere, by all means, go ahead. We dare not pull apart from each other at this time. United, we will stand, divided we will fall.”
Across the Illinois border in Indiana, raw milk farmer David Hochstetler got a lot of help from local law enforcement to fend off the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
As a raw milk producer, Hochstetler, operator of Forest Grove Dairy south of Middlebury, has endured repeated inspections by federal regulators. His plight prompted Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers to intervene, advising the FDA to stay away or risk arrest.
“With Mr. Hochstetler, he’s had harassment and ongoing visits that were unreasonable,” Rogers recently told the Internet site etruth.com.
Rogers informed the feds in a Dec. 2 e-mail that they would need warrants before conducting any more inspections of Hochstetler’s farm.
The FDA and state government bodies have stood by the claim raw milk is not safe to drink because of the bacteria it can contain. Federal law prohibits commercial transfer of raw milk across state lines. Under Indiana law, it’s illegal to sell raw milk, though producers come up with the arrangements the same as Wisconsin where consumers own or lease milk-producing cows.
In Illinois, it is legal to drive up to a farm and purchase raw milk.
Proponents say the dangers of raw milk are overblown and that the product contains vitally healthy nutrients not found in pasteurized milk.
Rogers, reportedly a Republican with ties to the Elkhart County Tea Party movement, told etruth.com his objection is about governmental bodies ignoring individual rights.
“To me, it’s not about raw milk. It’s about upholding my oath of office and being a guardian of the Constitution,” said Rogers. He said the FDA intervention boiled down to “harassment from federal agencies.”
Rogers e-mailed the FDA, threatening the arrest of federal agents if they tried to inspect Hochstetler’s operation without a warrant.
“This is notice that any further attempts to inspect this farm without a warrant signed by a judge, based on probable cause, will result in federal inspectors’ removal or arrest for trespassing by my officers or I,” the e-mail read in part.
“The arrogance of thinking federal law trumps everything flies in the face of the 10th Amendment (regarding state powers),” Rogers said. “If we think the federal government trumps everything, we’re destined for big trouble in the freedoms here in our country.”
After a back-and-forth between Rogers and the feds, a subpoena for inspection was withdrawn.
There also have been incidents of small farmers in Maryland, Oregon, Nevada, Maine and Vermont rebelling against being pushed around on organic farms and selling organic products.
The court of public opinion can prove to be an effective tool to ease the pressure from government agencies. Many people want to drink raw milk and believe they have the right to do so.
What all raw milk advocates agree upon is that consumers and all citizens need to speak up to cease government intervention.
From the Dec. 28, 2011-Jan. 3, 2012, issue