Joe Orso

Columnist Joe Orso

The raw milk debate is not primarily about raw milk — even though those of us who drink it feel strongly about its nutritional values.

Nor is the debate primarily about food safety and health risks.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the Centers for Disease Control and other government and corporate bureaucracies will certainly scare one segment of our population with their statistics on raw milk. Another segment of our population will see the manipulation of those statistics and explain why raw milk, when sold from farm to consumer, is far healthier and safer than pasteurized milk, as well as much of what is sold as “food” these days.

But whatever your personal beliefs about raw milk, it’s important to remember this: The debate is primarily about the right to choose your food, and it’s about Vernon Hershberger, a dairy farmer in Sauk County who is facing up to three years of incarceration for the amazingly criminal act of selling milk.

“When they put a farmer out of business for supplying raw milk or any other food, they’re interfering with the food supply,” said David Gumpert, a journalist and author of “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights.” “They’re depriving those people of access to food that they choose to eat. When you start looking at it in those terms, it becomes more than just a concept. There’s real cause and effect.

“This is pretty pivotal here. There aren’t too many people who are willing to stand up like Vernon has done, because it’s very intimidating.”

Hershberger, who had a court appearance on Friday, has been charged with four misdemeanors related to sales of raw milk to members of a private buying club. Before his 1 p.m. hearing, about 300 people attended a rally outside the Sauk County Circuit Courthouse to support Hershberger.

Michael Schmidt, a Canadian raw-milk producer facing legal battles there, was among them, and told those gathered that all of North America is facing the same demise of rights.

“Excuse me for what I am saying, but we don’t have a Hitler we can blame,” he said. “We have a faceless bureaucracy which works with cold-hearted, intellectual tactics to destroy this country right at its core and it starts with the food supply. And therefore we need to wake up and we need to commit ourselves to the act of defiance, and the act of a peaceful defiance, the act of non-violent resistance in order that we protect our farmers, our food, our land.”

Currently, Wisconsin law only allows incidental sales of raw milk. In 2010, after being lobbied by the dairy industry, then-Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill he originally supported that would have made it legal to sell raw milk directly to consumers, as it is in other states. Another effort to legalize sales, Senate Bill 108, has stalled in committee.

To many of those gathered outside the courthouse, Hershberger is a hero. Some compared him to Rosa Parks. Others just admired his courage.

“Vernon is a man of God,” said John Maedke, a dairy farmer from north of Green Bay. “I’m really proud of him.”

With his children and wife at his side, Hershberger emanated a quiet, humble presence while standing at the center of this battle between citizens and the state.

He is both respectful and defiant.

When the judge asked if he had an attorney on Friday, Hershberger lifted a Bible from the table and said that was his counsel.

In recent months he has disavowed his bail terms and his club members are still getting raw milk.

In an earlier appearance, he told the judge: “If our farm stopped feeding its owners’ families, there will be literally hundreds of children who will suffer malnutrition and even starvation. Your honor, I would much rather spend the rest of my life behind bars or even die than to be found guilty of such a gross sin before the Almighty God.”

Before Friday’s hearing, I asked Gumpert what he thought of the heroic comparisons, and he said a lot of people probably didn’t see the historical significance of Rosa Parks when she refused to go to the back of the bus. Like some see Hershberger today, some just saw her as a troublemaker back then.

“At the time it’s really hard to appreciate,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I don’t think it’s far-fetched, when you look back on this in 20 or 30 years, that this will turn out to have been a pivotal event because he’s the first person to really challenge this on a human rights basis. He’s the first person to be willing to put his body on the line and say, ‘OK, throw me in jail.’”

Of course, history is never just the history of heroes.

How we tell Hershberger’s story in the future will depend not only on his actions and not only on the convictions of his staunchest supporters. Rather, it will depend on whether those from the broader community who hear his story believe his rights have been violated and whether they then feel empowered enough also to stand with him and, if necessary, resist with him.

A tentative trial date has been set for September.

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