You can see it in his smile as the organic farmer plays with one of his 10 children, or the confidence with which he sells raw milk to a member of his buyers club.
It’s a 180-degree turn for the man who was at the center of a raw milk controversy about 13 months ago. Facing the possibility of jail time after a state agency charged him with crimes related to unlicensed sales, Hershberger instead became the face of the growing raw milk industry in Wisconsin and the nation. He was acquitted on three of the four charges in a Sauk County courtroom last June.
“I got my life back,” said Hershberger, 43.
He was charged with producing milk, operating a dairy plant without a license and selling food at a retail establishment, as well as violating a holding order placed on his products by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection after a raid at his farm in 2010. That created a stage for raw, or unpasteurized, milk proponents to tout its health benefits and for opponents to warn of its health risks. They argued straight through the trial that ended with acquittals on all charges but the holding order.
Hershberger said raw milk sales have increased exponentially as membership in his buyers club, Grazin Acres LLC, has grown about 25 percent to about 325 families since the landmark case ended . He was convicted only of one misdemeanor, for violating the holding order.
“Just last week a couple came out here for the first time, but they said they watched the trial and have been interested ever since,” said the soft-spoken Hershberger, who last weekend drew hundreds of visitors to his farm for an annual ice cream social. “So we’re still seeing the after-effects of the trial.”
Nationally, enforcement actions on raw milk farms are down dramatically, advocates said. In Wisconsin, DATCP legal counsel Cheryl Daniels was not aware of any cases investigated by her department that have risen to the level of enforcement action since the trial, according to agency spokeswoman Raechelle Cline.
“My case was kind of a turning point,” Hershberger said. “But they might try again. Who knows?”
In Wisconsin, raw milk’s critics and advocates seem content to abide by the line drawn in the sand that limits raw milk sales to buyers clubs like Grazin Acres.
A bill authored by state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-Campbellsport, to expand raw milk sales has stalled. Meantime, DATCP officials and others who believe raw, or unpasteurized, milk is potentially dangerous to drink because it could contain deadly bacteria have been quiet.
“The law is still what it is and we will continue to enforce what we can under the law as it is written,” Cline said.
That’s the stance that the Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition is taking, too. “The science hasn’t changed on this thing and neither have the politics in this state,” said spokesman Shawn Pfaff. “We still believe Gov. (Scott) Walker has concerns about any bill that comes to his desk.”
It has been so quiet on the protest front that Liz Reitzig, a raw milk advocate from Virginia who was in Baraboo in June 2013 for Hershberger’s trial and spent time last year in other parts of the country for similar trials, has spent the summer at home.
“Thanks to Vernon,” said Reitzig, “it has been an enjoyable summer with my children.”
It’s been a quiet summer for Hershberger, too, except for when members stop by or the occasional truck roars by on Highway 23.
“It has allowed us to regroup as a family,” he said. “It lets us worry about other things than staying out of jail.”
Even though he is selling more milk, Hershberger said he hasn’t increased his herd of 35 cows.
“The pigs and chickens just don’t get as much milk to drink anymore,” he said.
The only news Hershberger has made this summer was when a state appeals court on July 17 upheld the single conviction from last year’s trial. That resulted in a $1,000 fine that was paid by friends, Hershberger said.
Friends are also helping Hershberger recover from a fire last year that destroyed a barn and most of his equipment. The cost to rebuild was estimated at $175,000, Hershberger said.
A fundraiser for the Hershbergers has been scheduled for Aug. 26 at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Joel Salatin, an outspoken organic farmer from Virginia, is the featured speaker.
Meanwhile, Hershberger has found a way to give back. One of his sons has become a volunteer firefighter after watching what he said were the heroic efforts of firefighters to save his farm from further damage.
“That’s another circle of friends,” Hershberger added.
It’s a circle that he said also includes Sauk County sheriff’s deputies that he met during the raids, government officials and some jurors from the trial.
“My goal before the trial wasn’t to win. My goal was to start relationships, and that has happened,” Hershberger said.
“Since the trial, relationships were started between farmers, people who want good food and the government. It’s a start in the right direction.”
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