Recently I learned about a Wisconsin farmer who is facing legal charges, possible fines and jail time for providing members of his farm’s “club” with raw milk, fresh meats and vegetables. Let me repeat that. A farmer is being threatened by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for producing milk, meat and vegetables for 200 members of his farm’s private buying club, some of which were his own family.
Vernon Hershberger is this farmer’s name. He is a former member of the Amish Community who, along with his wife and their ten children, has created a thriving family business based on a “food share” business model. In brief, people who do business with Hershberger are leasees of the farm’s cows and work in the farm’s fields in exchange for the right to raw milk products and wholesome foods.
Hershberger has been running his farm’s private club since 2003, following a ruling by the DATCP that enabled Wisconsin farmers to provide raw milk by private contract. However, within six years, DATCP began harassing the raw milk farmers that they had previously encouraged, stating that raw milk was not safe for public consumption.
By January of 2010, Wisconsin state regulators were attempting to shut down the distribution of raw milk, demanding farm records and club member’s names. In June of that same year, DATCP inspectors raided Hershberger’s farm, without proven cause, pouring blue dye into his bulk tank and ruining 300 gallons of his milk supply. Government officials placed a further embargo on Hershberger’s produce and meat products by sealing his farm coolers with tape and stating that he was not allowed to remove any club member’s food from those coolers.
Hershberger’s religious beliefs encouraged the farmer to go against DATCP orders. He broke open the taped seals and distributed the perishable shares from his coolers before the food spoiled and went to waste. The usually peaceable farmer’s actions resulted in legal charges of four criminal misdemeanors including violating a DATCP holding order by cutting through the agency tape and providing his members with the food for which they had legally contracted, which was rightfully theirs. This week, three years after those charges were levied, Hershberger is finally going to get his day in court. If found guilty, he could face fines of $10,000 and up to three years in prison.
In researching this case, I found as much conflicting information as solid fact. I also discovered the voices of passionate people on both sides of the issue. However, for my nickel, what is abundantly clear and highly concerning about this situation is what is really at stake: whether any one of us, as Americans, has the legal and/or inalienable right to distribute food privately, or to contract with producers to obtain food privately. And by definition, “privately” extends far beyond the boundaries of farm share memberships to church dinners, community bake sales and even roadside lemonade stands.
In an era when additives, pesticides and unwanted GMOs are adulterating our foods with the government’s blessing, when urban gardeners across the United States are being fined and legally prevented from growing fresh foods on their own properties, we need to pay special attention to Vernon Hershberger’s trial. We need to become aware and involved in protecting our food rights. We need to support farmers whose lives are dedicated to providing us with foods that make us healthy and strong.
We need to be sure that “We the People”, always enjoy the basic human right to independently declare which foods stock our pantries, fill our plates and nourish us. And we need to do so before it’s too late.
Information about Vernon Hershberger and his upcoming trial is available at vernonhershberger.com.