Now that a Wisconsin judge has rejected raw milk farmer Vernon Hershberger’s religious freedom arguments to justify having a witness testify on his behalf, his trial looks likely to go forward as scheduled beginning May 20.
As proceedings draw closer, we will no doubt hear much from the local media that this is a case about about food and dairy licensing, and Hershbergers refusal to obtain essential licenses. Hershberger is accused of four criminal misdemeanors–failing to have a retail food establishment license, operating a dairy farm as a milk producer without a license, and operating a dairy plant without a license (though Wisconsin issues no licenses for raw milk producers). The fourth accusation is that Hershberger violated a holding order from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in June 2010, when he cut the agency tape shuttering his farm store, and resumed serving his food club members.
But the technical legalities of the case fail to convey that, at its heart, this is a political case rather more than a legal case. Most fundamentally, the case is about whether Hershberger has the right to distribute food privately to individuals who have contracted with him, without regulatory interference.
The reason the case is so important politically is that it isnt just about whether Hershberger has the right to distribute food privately, it is about whether all of us have this right on either end of the equation–to distribute food privately or to contract with producers to obtain food privately. If Hershberger is acquitted by the jury of his peers, the shock effects will reverberate throughout the country, and regulators will be forced to re-examine their crackdown on private food distribution. If Hershberger loses, not only could he go to jail for more than a year, but regulators everywhere will lick their chops and go after private food more aggressively than ever.
Among many ironies, this right–to distribute or obtain food privately–is one we and our forefathers all have had for hundreds of years. But quietly and nearly unnoticed, our rulers have steadily infringed on this right over the last fifty years, to the point where they are now asserting that we have no such right, have lost that right via legislative and regulatory changes, and are impudent and wreckless to even think about asserting it, since the times we live in are so much more threatening and dangerous than they once were.
The huge implications, and arrogance, of this government assertion are gradually dawning on growing numbers of people, to the extent that food rights is evolving into a major political issue. The extent to which it is becoming a major political issue may become apparent the week of May 20, when Hershbergers trial opens in the small town of Baraboo, WI.
The trial so far is scheduled to run the entire week of May 20, and include some 70 witnesses. I wouldnt be surprised if it runs longer, given the intensity of the arguments. Hershberger supporters from around the country will be attending the trial, as Gayle Loiselle noted in a comment following my previous post–including Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, California raw dairy owner Mark McAfee (who clearly explained his reasons for coming in a comment following my previous post), Michigan pig farmer Mark Baker, Cornucopia director Mark Kastel, Indiana Sheriff Brad Rogers, Maine food sovereignty activist and farmer Deborah Evans, Los Angeles food rights lawyer Ajna Sharma-Wilson, and yours truly, among many others.
James Taylor sings how Im goin to Carolina in my mind, but lots of people are humming the tune about going to Baraboo, and they are going for real. Make your plans now to attend at least some of the trial. There will be related events and discussions about food rights led by various supporters. The Farm Food Freedom Coalition has been helping coordinate preparations, and several groups and sites are following the trial, including one from Vernon and this and this from supporters. There’s a Facebook page as well with updates about the trial location and related events.
Donations to help support Hershberger’s legal defense can be made at this site.
The wild boar conflict being fought by Michigan farmer Mark Baker gets major treatment in The New York Times. Unfortunately, Baker isn’t mentioned, and the farming interests receive minor attention in the article–it’s the hunting preserves and the states contentions about the threats of marauding wild pigs that are the main focus.
Two sets of intriguing data: The Centers for Science in the Public Interest says that reports of foodborne illness are down 40 per cent over the past decade. In the meantime, The Wall Street Journal reports that cases of childhood asthma have soared, to the extent that nearly 10 per cent of all children are afflicted. Says the WSJ: Asthma affects about 9% of children in the U.S. under the age of 17, and for many the condition is lifelong. Overall, more than 25 million Americans of all ages have asthma, representing about 8.4% of the population in 2010, up from 7.3% in 2001, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How mixed up is our public health agenda? Huge public health attention is being devoted to locking up the Vernon Hershbergers of the world for selling dangerous food, when the latest research shows that the raw milk Hershberger produces may well counter childhood asthma. Another reason to plan a trip to Baraboo in support of Hershberger.