By Richard S. Gubbe
Vernon Hershberger has become a national folk hero. The Wisconsin organic farmer who has brazenly defied the state to provide organic food and raw milk to a co-op of consumers managed to stay out of jail after a court hearing last Friday, March 2, in Baraboo, Wis., amidst a rally of support.
Hershberger appeared in state court and feared he would be jailed because he defied a court order to allow inspectors on his farm to check on whether he was selling organic food without proper licensing and for selling raw milk. The original charges stemmed from alleged violations that date back to July 2010.
After a symposium Thursday, March 1, that featured raw milk and consumers’ right activists speaking out on civil rights, Hershberger appeared in court Friday, March 2, to face possible punishment for violation of his bond conditions.
Supporters for Hershberger’s cause to fight the system came from far and near, upward of 400 to 500, to rally at the Sauk County Courthouse. The rally outside was highlighted by the adoption of a new “Declaration of Food Independence” that was signed by many of the supporters who came to protest what many have called the persecution of the small farmer in America, with Hershberger as their figurehead.
Judge Guy Reynolds declined to revoke his bond because the state did not file a formal motion, only notifying the judge in a letter that Hershberger denied inspectors access to his property. Why no motion was filed was not made clear in the proceedings.
Hershberger has said he is just the caretaker of animals and supplies food to members from his “pantry” located on his farm in Loganville, just west of Baraboo.
Judge Reynolds advised Hershberger in court to follow the condition of his bond and allow inspectors to visit his farm. 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 Feb. 9. The refusal of access is in direct violation of the court order issued the week prior at a county hearing. The bond included a condition that 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 of access denial was captured on video and posted on YouTube.
Hershberger described what went on when he entered the courthouse with his son, Andrew, and activist David Gumpert.
“When we got to the courtroom close to an hour before court time, they scanned everyone for weapons and confiscated all cameras,” Hershberger said. “I asked them about our video camera that Andrew was going to use to record the whole proceeding. They told me there is no way that we are allowed to take that camera inside the courtroom due to judge’s orders. I told them that it is my constitutional right to have everything properly recorded when I am talking with government officials. I let them know that I will not go anywhere without that camera. I just stepped aside and sat down in a chair while they continued to scan the other people and to fill the courtroom.
“They continued to persuade me to go inside and sit down with family, then I could ask the judge when the hearing starts,” Hershberger continued. “I firmly told them no. Finally, it was 1:00 and they were getting nervous. I did not expect anything else besides going to jail if I don’t comply. But, I thought I will rather go to jail than to go into the courtroom without the camera.”
Heshberger said court personnel then changed their stance.
“After 1:00, they started conversing with the judge and trying to make me a deal,” Hershberger said. “I turned down four deals, and then finally gave in when they said that Andrew could go inside and let David Gumpert operate the camera and that he (Andrew) could stand right beside him and show him how to operate it.”
Hershberger described the proceedings as positive.
“Many good things happened during the hearing,” he said. “The judge entered a not guilty plea for me, even with my objections, which was a mistake by him. He scheduled motion hearings for our three main motions, then he scheduled a trial for September, to which I did not agree. The state then brought up the issue of the bond.
“The judge told them that he will not look at the bond today, as they had just submitted a letter and not a motion,” Hershberger said. “He stated that he will not go by letters in the courtroom. They tried to get me to give up my rights to an attorney so they could proceed with the pre-trial conference and make me an offer of settlement. I refused. Therefore, the judge told them that they cannot proceed with that today. The hearing was closed, and we went home to try and figure out how to proceed.”
After the prosecution informed Reynolds on Hershberger’s failure to comply with the court’s order to allow inspectors on Hershberger’s property, Reynolds said: “The court is not going to respond to letters. The court takes action on properly served and filed motions. That’s true for both sides.”
Hershberger has not hired an attorney to represent him since the ordeal began, although he has considered doing so in recent weeks and even consulted with attorneys on his situation. The judge tentatively scheduled a trial on the four misdemeanor licensing charges that Hershberger faces for Sept. 25.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom and the overflow room that people were allowed into, people gathered from across the country to voice their support of raw milk “decriminalization.” There is legislation being considered in the state assembly to allow the sale of raw milk in Wisconsin.
Those who gathered were allowed to sign the declaration in the same fashion as the Declaration of Independence. The declaration read as follows:
“In a spirit of humility and with respect for both the just law of the land and Natural Law, we declare that, inherent in every individual is the God-given right to procure the food of one’s choice from consenting farmers and producers.
“The undersigned respectfully declare that we will peacefully reject laws and regulations that infringe on this God-given right.
“We are willing to suffer the consequences rather than comply with laws and regulations that deny people the sovereignty to choose their own foods or deny producers the authority to engage directly with consumers.
“For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of God, we mutually pledge to each other our commitment to protect and secure this right ourselves, all individuals, and our mutual posterity.”
Supporters from Maryland to California came to voice displeasure at government interference in the growing and eating of organic foods and raw milk for two days of events held in Baraboo. The Thursday event featured a conference on the right to farm and how the consumer can remain independent of government regulation through civil disobedience.
From the March 7-13, 2012, issue