LOGANVILLE — Vernon Hershberger was too busy last week to celebrate his acquittal of three charges pertaining to his raw milk operation during a Sauk County trial that drew worldwide attention.
“All the publicity the state created for us is paying off,” Hershberger said from behind the counter of the store on his dairy farm that was stocked with raw milk and other organic products. His phone has been ringing with well-wishers from around the world, and nearly a dozen people have told him they want to join his buyers club, he added.
Hershberger is in new trouble with state officials, who have asked for a hearing Monday in a Sauk County courtroom to send him to jail for admitting to selling products in his store. That breaks conditions of his bail, which are still in place because he was also found guilty of one count of violating a holding order placed on products in his store.
But that isn’t clouding the issue of whether the acquittals will help move raw milk beyond buyers clubs like Hershberger’s Grazin Acres LLC to grocery store shelves throughout America’s Dairyland. That’s because both sides of the controversy aren’t ready to work together to help make it legal in the state, according to an agricultural law expert.
“A plan is needed to get that done,” said Peter Carstensen, a law professor at UW-Madison and an expert on agricultural market regulation. “And the plan you have to start with is answering the question of how do you protect the general public from the dangers of raw milk while allowing reasonable access to those who really understand the risks but want the perceived benefits.”
Those are the central issues of the controversy. Advocates for raw milk steadfastly believe it has nutritional and health benefits that are destroyed by pasteurization. Opponents, including most public health officials, say it’s unsafe and will make people sick unless it’s pasteurized.
One idea floated by Carstensen and Hershberger’s attorney, Glenn Reynolds, is to find a legislator to introduce a bill that increases accessibility to raw milk provided by producers who follow guidelines adopted by the state to ensure its safety.
“To get it done, you need the kind of leadership from both sides that say, ‘Let’s find a solution,’” said Carstensen.
Reviving failed proposal
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said he is hoping to find that solution when he reintroduces a raw milk bill, perhaps as early as this month, that he thinks could draw some momentum from the Hershberger acquittals and get passed into law.
On May 25, Hershberger, 41, was found not guilty of charges he produced milk and operated a dairy plant without a license and sold food in a retail establishment. Although he was found guilty for violating a holding order and could get up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine, the trial was considered an overwhelming victory for the defense.
“It’s great to see the American spirit of freedom still lives in the jurors of Sauk County. I hope the Legislature has the same spirit when they debate the raw milk bill,” said Grothman. He added he has been drinking raw milk for about four years and loves it.
But Grothman could have trouble selling his bill because it might lack strong enough safety standards.
Gov. Scott Walker has said through a spokesman that he’d support legislation for limited sales of raw milk if it contained safeguards to protect the public.
The Legislature passed a different raw milk bill in 2010, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle because of safety concerns.
The bill Grothman plans to reintroduce is virtually the same as the bill he proposed in May 2011 and which died in committee in March 2012, according to Grothman aide Mike Murphy.
Safety strategy outlined, ignored
That bill ignored every key safety recommendation made in March 2011 by 22 state dairy experts whom the state asked to find everything the state could do to make raw milk as safe as possible for public consumption if it were to be legalized.
The physicians, public health officials, academics, organic farmers, raw milk advocates and others assembled by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection overcame their differences to agree on a regulatory strategy that covered food safety, management and education, said Pam Ruegg, a UW-Madison veterinarian and expert on milk quality and safety who was on the committee.
Among their conclusions was that there are inherent health risks associated with drinking raw milk that state regulation could reduce but not eliminate, Ruegg said.
“People will get sick from drinking raw milk. It’s unpredictable and there will be some tragedies (if it’s legalized),” she said.
Grothman was aware of the committee and attended some sessions where he made committee members aware of his opinions, Ruegg said.
His 2011 bill limited safety requirements to requiring dairy farmers to use sanitary containers and methods to fill them when selling raw milk products directly to consumers on the farm. It also required dairy farmers to post a sign stating “Raw milk products sold here. Raw milk products are not pasteurized.”
That bill also would have made farms milking fewer than 20 cows exempt from DATCP rules governing the operation of dairy farms and the testing and quality of milk.
A question of food freedom
Raw milk advocates believe Hershberger’s acquittals prove they should have the freedom to choose whatever they want to drink without government intervention.
“This was not a win saying we don’t have to follow regulations,” Hershberger said. “It’s about everybody being free to feed themselves and eat what they choose and telling the state to stop wasting money this way.”
Ruegg agreed, saying people should have the freedom to drink raw milk if they so choose. But she noted problems can occur when they give raw milk to children or others for whom they make decisions and they get sick, she said.
“We all know getting on a motorcycle without a helmet has risks, and some people choose to do that,” Ruegg said. “But if you see somebody on a motorcycle with a 2-year-old strapped on their back without a helmet, you’d say, ‘Who would let them do that?’ I think it’s similar with raw milk.”
Not all raw milk advocates believe the best plan for the moment is to argue with the opposition. A better plan is to follow the blueprint created by Hershberger and other farmers who operate buyers clubs, according to Liz Reitzig, the founder of Farm Food Freedom Coalition.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for food systems that are community-based and are local. That’s ultimately where the prosperity comes from. When you have these local farmers who are feeding their local communities, the money stays in the communities and it really revitalizes the local economies. There’s so much potential there,” she said.
Hershberger agreed. He told the State Journal last week that he has been distributing milk to people clamoring for supplies since the trial ended last Saturday and told The Capital Times that he had been doing so since he was charged by DATCP agents in 2010.
But Hershberger said he felt secure because his supporters had his back by helping at the farm, by covering all of his legal bills and in their efforts to change public opinion.
“It’s such a load off my shoulders knowing that the people in my community support what I’m doing,” Hershberger said. “People’s lives were changed by this. People’s hearts were touched. It’s a real big inspiration to me.”