It was a sight to warm the hearts of all in DATCP (the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection), not to mention the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
There was Vernon Hershberger, basking in the warm afternoon sunlight outside the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo, feeling relief at having emerged from the one-hour-45-minute sentencing hearing, and a three-year fight with DATCP, with only a $1,000 fine and $513 in court costs. In his pocket was a check from one of his members for $1,513 to pay for everything. And before you could say, “Way to go, Vernon,” there were four members of the jury that convicted him of the single count of violating a DATCP hold order to stop him from selling food back in 2010–a hold order he readily acknowledged he had violated because he refused to let huge amounts of food rot and go to waste. (Hershberger’s lawyers plan to appeal the conviction, so the slate could be wiped completely clean, to go with the acquittals on the three licensing charges.)
The jurors were telling him how sorry they were to have come back with the guilty verdict. They were saying they were upset the hold order was so severely redacted they didn’t know it was based on the farmer not having the licenses the jurors ruled he didn’t need. They were meeting his wife, Erma, and some of his ten children. The jurors were asking about becoming members of his food club AND buying raw milk. They were talking about organizing a group excursion to his farm. (For a fuller account of the jury’s actions on behalf of Hershberger at the sentencing hearing, see my article in Modern Farmer.)
DATCP had spent more than three years pursuing Hershberger, spending untold millions in its obsession, and what the agency came away with was a farmer cleared by a jury of his peers to sell food privately to his food club members, slapped on the wrist by a judge who had clearly had enough of the farmer who stood his ground, and, in the ultimate slap, a cadre of new converts from among individuals who came to the case with nary a passing interest in raw milk and nutritionally dense foods.
The Sauk County Court had arranged for the jurors during the trial two weeks earlier to be bused into town from a remote parking lot. “They were afraid for our safety,” said Michele Bollfrass-Hopp, a juror. “I was kind of scared. I thought his supporters were possibly dangerous. I found out what nice people they are…Now we are radicalized.”
Inside the courthouse, Hershberger offered in a statement to the judge to try to work with DATCP, and come to understandings about what would be appropriate organization and oversight for his private operation. Afterward, he and his lawyers conversed with DATCP chief counsel, David Meany, and Wisconsin Department of Justice attorneys, about ways to get started. They wouldn’t comment, but one of Hershberger’s lawyers said Meany had discussed the possibility of DATCP encouraging regulation that would allow for alternative private organizational schemes. It was clearly all very tentative.
After talking with the jurors at length, Hershberger finally left the victory celebration. “It’s time to get back to farming,” he said with a grin.
The legal defense of Vernon Hershberger took a mammoth, and expensive, effort by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. You can help in that effort by supporting the FTCLDF’s annual fund drive…and you’ll receive a copy of my new book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat” (or Sally Fallon’s new book or a movie).