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Farmer jailed on milk, organic food sale charges
By Richard S. Gubbe
Wisconsin small farmer Vernon Hershberger had his day in court, then spent time in jail, and now faces another day in court.
Hershberger was summoned to face state charges relating to his selling of raw milk and other foods through a co-op store on his farm in Loganville, Wis., west of Baraboo, Wis. Many of his supporters, in the dozens, gathered on the courthouse steps last week to show their support, only to watch the legal process extend.
Hershberger had to go through the bond process and was bailed out after posting $500. He faces four criminal counts, a possible two-and-a-half years in prison and more than $13,000 in fines. He’s due back in court for a pretrial hearing Jan. 30.
Hershberger appeared without an attorney, saying before the trial he didn’t need one because he did nothing wrong. The court reminded him of his right to an attorney during the pretrial hearing.
“There is no proof of validity to the complaint so far,” Hershberger told the Sauk County judge.
Hershberger has been offered free legal help, and an attorney has offered to file a lawsuit against the state and is seeking seven plaintiffs. Details of the suit were not available.
“It feels overwhelming that people would drive more than three hours to get here just for me,” Hershberger said on the courthouse steps.
Dozens of protesters gathered in Baraboo to show their support and brought large containers of raw milk and drank it there as a show of support. Two Madison, Wis., television stations covered the event and the hearing.
“It was a very gross, illegal act that the judge pulled off today,” Hershberger told his co-op membership after posting bond.
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’s co-op issued the following statement: “Vernon Hershberger is privately contracted with Right To Choose Healthy Food members to board, and produce health-giving organic food from members’ animals for members-only consumption. The State of Wisconsin tried to close his farm in 2010 and recently filed multiple charges against him for operating a retail store and dairy without licenses and defying WDA (Wisconsin Dairy Association) orders to not distribute members’ products to them. That is not only a violation of our civil rights, it is a moral assault on our health and well-being.
“Since owner/members of the animals reject state regulations of food preparation and governance, it also rejects the state’s jurisdiction over animals and farm. No harm was done to anyone. Since no food is sold or distributed to the public and is only distributed to members who own the food, there is no crime. The only affront is that Wisconsin does not get its licensing fees and food-control that forces money from small farmers that the state does not earn or deserve. That constitutes state racketeering. Since all Right To Choose Healthy Food (RTCHF) members are part owners of the farm assets, every member’s address is the farm’s address.”
Hershberger’s Grazin’ Acres farm in Loganville was raided 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 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 and has continued to sell milk, organic meat and other organic and health-oriented food products.
“I’d have no trouble getting a license if they had one for me,” Hershberger said.
From the Jan. 18-24, 2012, issue