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'Raw milk' farmer sentenced

June 20, 2013 | 0 comments

After three years of legal troubles, Loganville farmer Vernon Hershberger walked out of the Sauk County courthouse last week happy with the outcome.

The farmer, who became a social cause for food freedom and raw milk advocates, was sentenced to a $1,000 fine related to the one count a jury had earlier found him guilty of. He was also ordered to pay $513 in court costs.

The original charges on which he was brought to court could have landed him in jail for up to a year with fines of up to $10,000.

A jury of seven men and seven women last month found the operator of an organic dairy farmer and a food buyers club in rural Sauk County not-guilty on three of the more serious counts and guilty of only violating a hold order placed on food in the farm "pantry" by state inspectors.

Prosecutors from the Department of Justice argued that Hershberger operated a dairy farm, dairy processing facility and a retail food establishment without a license. The jury only found him guilty on the one misdemeanor charge of violating the hold order placed on raw milk in his Grazin' Acres LLC food store.

During the trial, both he and his wife testified that they had broken that seal and used that food because they don't like to see food wasted and because they needed it to feed their 10 children.

During the sentencing hearing last week, Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Guy Reynolds agreed with the farmer's attorney that jail or probation were not appropriate in his case since he had never been in trouble with the law.

Hershberger's attorney requested a new trial on the one count he was convicted of, but the judge denied that request.

The trial had gathered national attention since Hershberger was considered an emblem of raw milk and people's right to choose what kinds of food they eat. Many of his supporters and buyers club members sat through the entire trial and donated money to the farmer for his legal defense.

During the trial in May "food freedom" advocates set up shop in the Al Ringling Theater, across the street from the courthouse, selling meals and raising money for the farmer's legal defense fund.

Last week at the sentencing hearing, prosecutors argued for a harsher sentence to show that individuals couldn't flout state laws. Hershberger's attorney argued that the state's debate over raw milk was the only reason his client had been prosecuted at all and urged a lighter sentence.

State prosecutors, assisted by lawyers from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, brought the case. The Sauk County district attorney had declined to prosecute Hershberger.

Throughout the trial and sentencing, the judge tried to keep the discussion from touching on the merits or dangers of raw milk. Pre-trial rulings meant that the farmer and his customers were not able to talk about whatever they might think the value of raw milk is to people who drink it.

Wisconsin law allows only what is called incidental sale of raw milk.

During Hershberger's trial, prosecutors also tried and mostly succeeded in keeping out any testimony of how the farmer was told that his kind of "cow-sharing" arrangement would be acceptable to the state.

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