An advocate for small farms and their customers says the state Department of Justice's case against a Sauk County dairy farmer is political in nature.
"My question is: Where's the injury here?" said Pete Kennedy, an attorney for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. "It looks like the only injury that is going to occur is if he's prevented from distributing ... and people don't get access to this food."
The state Department of Justice announced Wednesday it had filed charges against Vernon Hershberger, owner of Grazin' Acres farm in Loganville. The charges come more than a year after state inspectors raided his farm and sealed off coolers of unpasteurized dairy products.
The raid came just weeks after then-Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed for limited sales of raw milk in Wisconsin. Despite the timing, state officials said the case had nothing to do with the debate over raw milk. They alleged Hershberger failed to renew his Grade-B dairy license and operated a retail food establishment without a license.
Hershberger faces misdemeanor charges of operating a retail food establishment without a license, operating a dairy farm as a milk producer without a license, operating a dairy plant without a license and violating a hold order that state regulators placed on his products during the raid. He is due in Sauk County Circuit Court on Jan. 4.
Following the raid, Hershberger openly continued to distribute products, but did so under agreements that allowed people to lease animals and consume the products derived from them. He says that exempts him from state licensing requirements.
When asked Thursday whether the lease agreements in fact exempt Hershberger from certain state laws, DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck referred the Baraboo News Republic to the criminal complaint.
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The complaint makes no mention of Hershberger's current arrangement. Charges that he operated without valid licenses are based on alleged sales prior to June 3, 2010. It was after that date that Hershberger began leasing his animals.
Under state law, dairy farmers are allowed to consume the raw milk they produce. The law also provides an exception that allows for "incidental sales" of raw milk from farmer to consumer at the dairy farm where the milk is produced.
"We do not sell our products," Hershberger said Thursday. "We are not retail. According to law, to lease is to own. Our members lease our livestock so they are just picking up what really belongs to them."
State regulatory agencies and public health officials say raw milk exposes people to disease-causing pathogens. Advocates say the pasteurization of milk destroys enzymes, hormones and bacteria that have human health benefits.
Kennedy - who has advised Hershberger in the past - alleges the fact that it took more than a year to file charges implies the local district attorney passed on the case, which led the DOJ to take it up.
Sauk County District Attorney Pat Barrett said Thursday her decision to request a special prosecutor in the case - which she said has "statewide implications" - was due to case load pressures, not politics.
"There is no reason for us to tackle a case that would be so time consuming when the AG's office has such expertise and is ready and willing to assist," Barrett said, adding that her office is 2.6 attorneys short for the types of cases it normally handles.
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