Vernon HershbergerA few people here have wondered what’s up with Vernon Hershberger, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who resorted to civil disobedience 15 months ago rather than knuckle under to the the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In the process of carrying out two inspections, DATCP inspectors slapped stickers on the coolers storing dairy products in his small farm store, ostensibly to prevent the coolers from being opened. The inspectors also dumped blue dye in a bunch of his raw milk. And they left him with a “Special Summary Order”, signed by the Bossman himself, Steven C. Ingham, head of the Division of Food Safety, that stated, among other things:
* “Consumption of unpasteruized raw milk is dangerous to health;”
* “The sale or distribution of unpasteurized raw milk creates an imminent health hazard;”
* “By selling or distributing raw milk milk and raw milk products, the Respondent is violating…Wis. Stats.”
* “The Respondent may request a hearing…limited to whether the summary special order is justified in its terms.”

As I described at the time, Hershberger made a decision to part company with DATCP, and cut the tape and immediately re-open. Only the 200 members of his food club can obtain milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products. His private club members hold a lease to all of Hershberger’s livestock. They essentially are only receiving the products that rightfully belong to them through the lease. They compensate Hershberger for the work he does and everything else it takes to raise and take care of the animals and whatever else is involved in providing members with the food they need.

I visited him a few weeks ago when I was in Wisconsin, just before Judge Patrick Fiedler issued his decision upholding DATCP’s seemingly absolute authority in the Craig and Zinniker case.

I wanted to meet Hershberger in person, because I admire his courage in challenging the Wisconsin authorities in their campaign to deny people access to healthful foods. He said at that time he was fine with me writing about him, which I hadn’t yet done by the time Judge Fiedler made his decision. Since the decision came out, I checked in to make sure he wasn’t afraid to be quoted in light of the harsh decision.

Being the humble man that he is, Hershberger told me it was okay, “But I don’t want to be boastful. I only want to encourage the consumers and farmers.” He didn’t say it, but fear seems not to be part of his makeup.

His advice to other Wisconsin farmers: avoid getting sucked into legal proceedings of any sort with state regulators. He said that when his legal problems began with DATCP last year, he was advised by some to establish a limited liability corporation, or herdshare, and “do tons of paperwork” that could be submitted to DATCP. A few farmers warned him that he was risking his farm and its 35 cows by challenging DATCP and its warnings of a $5,000 fine for each violation of the order.

He decided then and there he wasn’t going to have anything to do with lawyers or DATCP hearings or judicial proceedings. “I just feel very strongly not to join in their game. That’s what I call it. When they came here to close us down, they were trying to get me to join in their game. Get a lawyer. Try to release my products.”

Instead, he says, “I didn’t play. I just kept on providing product. Once they get you in their game, they’ll suck you dry.” Moreover, everything is out in the open, no under-the-table stuff on his part.

He’s been inspired by the example of Michael Schmidt in Canada. He, too, was threatened with huge fines following three raids by Ontario authorities–fines that had become so large the judge who ruled in Schmidt’s favor in early 2010 said they couldn’t even be calculated.

Hershberger credits his members with standing behind him, and voicing objections to local officials. He also credits local law enforcement people with standing by him. He says a local sheriff’s deputy told a Hershberger confidant: “If there was ever a time I wouldn’t want to be in law enforcement, that (raid on Hershberger’s farm to tape the coolers) was it. There isn’t anything going to happen to that case, because there are too many people in law enforcement who feel the same way.” That’s helped discourage local prosecutors from filing charges.

Hear that, Wisconsin farmers? There is a way out of the pickle Judge Fiedler’s decision seems to have created. It requires you letting go of your fear, and of mobilizing your customers, and taking the temperature of local law enforcement. Going as local as you can go. Without the cops to back them up, it’s tough for the pencil pushers to push too hard.

It seems to me that if you all go about your business of openly selling raw milk on a private basis, their warnings about dire consequences may be as empty as their warnings about the dangers of raw milk. It’s very difficult for them to go after everyone.

Slavery or freedom? Which will Wisconsin dairymen choose?