Raw milk consumers and advocates have both deserved and needed of taste of good news for some time now. Last week, they got their wish.
That's when a Wisconsin jury found area farmer and activist Vernon Hershberger not guilty of three out of four criminal charges against him. The case, in which the state argued that Hershberger had been producing and selling milk without the proper licenses, galvanized small farm advocates and consumers of raw milk around the country and garnered coverage in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and other national outlets.
Hershberger faced criminal charges for allegedly operating a retail store without a license, operating a dairy plant without a license, producing milk without a license, and violating a “holding order” issued by the state that required him literally to hold perishable food on his farm while the state decided what—if anything—he could do with it.
If found guilty of the charges, Hershberger could have faced more than one year in state prison.
Hershberger’s defense was that he provided milk only to members of a buyer’s club and so was not a retail store or dairy plant.
Hershberger admitted on the stand that he violated the latter order. And, in fact, that was the only count the court found he had violated.
According to reports, the jury ruled on the merits that Hershberger’s buying club meant he didn’t need a license to produce milk and that because he never operated a retail store or a dairy plant he didn’t need a license related to either of those businesses, either.
Hershberger still faces the specter of jail time and a heavy fine for the one guilty count.
The jury’s decision may not be a complete victory for Hershberter. But the jury's decision also doesn’t just get Hershberger off the hook retrospectively. Importantly, it means Hershberger can continue to provide raw milk to members of his buyer’s club—something he’s been doing all along and plans on continuing to do.
That key victory for the future of raw milk has resonated beyond the courtroom, throughout Wisconsin, and across the country.
“The Hershberger trial is a clear indication that people are tired of government agencies criminalizing peaceful farmers for feeding their communities,” says Liz Reitzig, co-founder of Farm Food Freedom Coalition, who helped organize supporters of Hershberger in Wisconsin, in an email to me earlier this week. “This is a huge win for food freedom and personal liberties.”
“The jury verdict in the Vernon Hershberger trial is a victory for 'food sovereignty,'” says David Gumpert, author of the books The Raw Milk Revolution and the forthcoming Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, by email. “It sends a message to regulators, prosecutors, and judges alike that ordinary people are determined to retain the right to obtain food privately, directly from producers, outside the bounds of regulator restrictions and over-zealous enforcement.”
It’s those regulators and enforcers who have been a constant headache for raw milk producers and consumers.
I noted in a column last year many “recent setbacks” for raw milk supporters. For example, as I wrote in that column, another raw milk case out of Wisconsin (which I posited at the time was and still believe is a blessing in disguise) held they had no fundamental right “to consume the milk from their own cow” or “to produce and consume the foods of their choice.”
Simply put, Vernon Hershberger and his supporters have turned that tide—and not just in Wisconsin.
“It's the greatest court victory for the raw milk movement in the United States,” said Pete Kennedy, an attorney who leads the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which represented Hershberger at trial, in a phone call with me earlier this week.
I agree. The Wisconsin victory for lactose tolerance and food freedom will reverberate for years to come.