As the jury sat in deliberation around 9 p.m. Friday, dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger stood in a prayer circle with his family, holding hands in a room just downstairs from where he’d hear the verdict of the case against him – in a trial the state insisted was definitely not about raw milk.
After five days of testimony, the jury took four hours to find Hershberger not guilty of three misdemeanor licensing charges and guilty of one misdemeanor violation of a state Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection hold order. Judge Guy Reynolds said sentencing would occur at a later date. Hershberger faces up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Still, Hershberger walked out of the Sauk County Courthouse beaming and was greeted by a congregation of family and supporters who cheered when he stepped outside. It’s been a long three years, he said.
“I’m excited to get home on the farm and be a farmer again,” Hershberger, 41, told Wisconsin Reporter on the steps in front of the courthouse. “There’s a lot of farmers hurting out there. They need something like this.”
The state accused Hershberger of not having a license from Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to operate a retail food establishment, a dairy plant or to operate as a dairy producer. It also said Hershberger violated a holding order when he broke DATCP-placed seals on the food in his pantry after a raid.
But Hershberger and his many supporters saw the agency’s actions as government abuse and an assault on the right to consume the food of one’s choosing – in this case, raw milk – a phrase that the judge in the case ordered off limits during the trial.
“This is one of the most abusive, most incomprehensible uses of government power I’ve ever seen,” said Hershberger’s attorney Glenn Reynolds. He said the case was a “pathetic use” of state resources and the prosecution of it was “words put together without substance.”
Reynold’s blasted the “schizophrenic” ag and trade agency and the “abusive” state in his nearly 40-minute closing arguments.
The issue, according to the defense, was not compliance; it was an assault on the freedom to choose and freedom of association. Reynolds dismissed the state’s attempt to tag Hershberger a criminal as “Orwellian newspeak.”
“You saw the video of the Hershberger’s two boys watching with shocked faces as Cathy Anderson (of DATCP) steps back from bulk tank, and boom, throws in blue dye and ruins 2,000 pounds of milk,” Reynolds said.
Hershberger testified that DATCP led him to the milk room, to what he thought was an inspection of his cows. Instead they dumped blue dye in the raw milk in his bulk tank to make sure it wouldn’t be consumed.
Reynolds asked the jury to “vote your conscience and send Mr. Hershberger back to his family an innocent man.”
The jury, for the most part agreed with Reynolds, although the guilty verdict for breaking the DATCP seals carries a jail sentence. Still, Reynolds said the verdict was a “great victory” for Hershberger and for other farmers.
The state tried to convince the jury that Hershberger might be a nice guy, but he broke the law.
“Did he have a retail food establishment license? No….Did he operate as a retail food establishment, dairy producer, or a dairy plant? Yes, on all three,” said Eric Defort, assistant attorney general.