Wisconsin farmer Mark Zinniker at the annual Biodynamics Conference in Madison, WI, on Thursday.What is the essential ingredient enabling farmers and food club operators to successfully resist the seemingly endless government assaults and incursions on private food arrangements?

Nearly without exception, it has been community support, according to several observers, including targeted farmers, who gathered for nearly five hours of panel discussions at the 2012 North American Biodynamic Conference in Madison, WI, on Thursday afternoon.

“There is absolutely no way I would be where I am today without community support,” Vernon Hershberger explained.  Where he is today is preparing to go on trial before a jury in Baraboo, WI, on January 7 on misdemeanor charges of having violated Wisconsin’s dairy and food licensing laws in connection with serving the members of his food club.  “There was one court hearing where we had 500 people there,” he explained. Large numbers are expected to attend the trial as well.

He credited his wife, Erma, and their ten children, with being at the center of his community support system.  But he suggested that community support must be more than simply signing petitions or joining a food club.

Consumers must become involved in the distribution of food, even the handling of farm chores. Such involvement breeds ever more commitment and passion. “If we become so passionate that we are willing to lay down our lives for one another, then there is no way we can lose,” he said.

Alvin Schlangen, the Minnesota farmer who was acquitted by a jury in September of misdemeanor dairy and food licensing charges similar to those faced by Hershberger, said he had to learn to seek out the support of his community of members and other supporters. “I had to ask for help,” he said. “Don’t ever consider that that is a bad thing.”

Conversely, the absence of community support can be fatal. Ajna Sharma-Wilson, the Los Angeles lawyer who has defended Rawesome Food Club founder James Stewart, said that dissension within Rawesome led to its undoing. Even though the Rawesome community existed in some form or another for 13 years, “James’ support fell away” after he was charged with felonies in Los Angeles County and Ventura County. Then it was simply a matter of “divide and conquer” for the regulators and prosecutors intent on destroying the food club, she added.

Liz Reitzig, organizer of the Raw Milk Freedom Riders, said she and other food club organizers had learned from the Rawesome experience as well as that involving Dan Allgyer, the Pennsylvania Amish farmer forced out of farming earlier this year. A major goal of the Raw Milk Freedom Riders has been to create a community among mothers seeking to obtain nutrient-dense direct from farmers. “If the FDA wants to get to a particular farmer, they have to understand they’re going to have to go through 200 angry moms,” she stated.


Strong community support can be undermined by the realities of life, unfortunately. Mark Zinniker, owner of a Wisconsin farm together with his wife, Petra, recounted during the panel discussion just how that can happen. The Zinnikers were among the plaintiffs in the now-famous ruling by Judge Patrick Fiedler in 2011, in which he declared that Wisconsin residents don’t have the right even to own a cow, or if they do, to drink its milk.

The farm has been in the Zinniker family since 1942. “From 1942 to to 2009, we never had any safety issues,” he said. Over that period, beginning in 1985, the farm sold shares in cows to consumers interested in raw milk. When the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) first became aware of the arrangement in 1993, “They claimed we would need separate milk coolers for each cow.”

That bizarre demand was the beginning of an off-again-on-again relationship with DATCP. In 1997, DATCP and the Zinnikers had a “memorandum of understanding” covering the legitimacy of the cow share arrangement…until 2003 when DATCP canceled it. In 2008, the agency re-interpreted its rules to declare all cow ownership arrangements illegal.

Then, in 2009, some 35 Zinniker cow share owners became ill from campylobacter. Though the pathogen was never found in the milk, a large processor to which Zinniker sold milk declined to pick up the dairy’s excess production. If a Wisconsin dairy doesn’t sell to a processor for 30 days or more, it automatically loses its Grade A license.

The Zinniker cow share owners were very forgiving of the dairy. Gayle Loiselle, a cow share owner and organizer of the Thursday panel discussion (and a plaintiff with the Zinnikers in their case against DATCP), said members of her family became ill from campylobacter in 2009. “Mistakes can happen, and we don’t know for sure it was even his fault.” Unfortunately, when it comes to raw milk safety, there sometimes aren’t second chances, like there are with all other foods.

Loiselle and other owners organized to rescue the operation by forming a limited liability company that purchased the cows, and then hired the Zinnikers to board and milk the cows. That arrangement went up in the flames of the Judge Fiedler decision.

While the community would certainly have continued supporting the Zinnikers, the couple decided after the Fiedler decision not to push the matter, fearing possible repercussions for Mark’s wife, Petra, who isn’t an American citizen.

According to Mark Zinniker, “In two years, the Zinniker Farm went from 25 cows to a farm that can no longer provide an income from the farm.” The couple is currently attempting to save the farm as a going enterprise by raising cattle to sell custom beef.


Late addition: I should have mentioned in my account of the panel discussions that the session had a surprise visit from Sen. Glenn Grothman, a Republican who was instrumental in pushing through the legislation vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2010 that would have allowed raw milk sales from farms.

“We want to move a new bill,” he told the 40 or so attendees.

“We have a problem with the public health establishment,” he said. “I don’t have a high opinion of them.” Same goes for “the medical society.”

He suggested that any new legislation would need to provide for significant testing and inspection requirements. “If you think you will get a bill that won’t regulate, it won’t happen,” he said.

Key to getting any legislation through, however, will be “a grassroots effort to educate people.” It will be especially important for supporters to contact their own legislators and push them to back the coming legislation. “A politician cares much more about someone in his district than an expert in Madison. We we get legislation, it is very important to have people in each district supporting it.”