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Friday, August 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Daily
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Who's attending the Vernon Hershberger raw milk trial?
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Hershberger supporters are eager to meet each other.
Credit:André Darlington

A line for the security checkpoint snaked down the stairs of the third-floor entrance of the Sauk County Courthouse room on Wednesday, where dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger is on trial for several violations surrounding operating a dairy and selling milk without the proper licenses, but what amounts to selling raw milk.

As the trial continued into its third day, supporters of the farmer filled the gallery to capacity and included members of the Amish community, food activists, concerned citizens and former members of Hershberger's food buying club. Also in attendance are other farmers who have made national news in battling regressive food laws in other states, notably Michigan heritage pig farmer Mark Baker.

During the week when the weather has been pleasant, supporters have gathered on the lawn in front of the courthouse, videotaping interviews, discussing the trial and playing Frisbee. Wednesday, as it began to rain, they huddled in groups in the Al Ringling Theatre across the street. The number of supporters and journalists at the theater -- a de facto headquarters during the trial -- ranges from a handful to forty. A concession stand is open selling traditional theater snacks. An audio stream of the trial is available.

Lunch has been catered for the week from Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is then used to raise funds for Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, FairShare CSA Coalition, and the Vernon Hershberger fire fund; it costs $10. A full dining area over the lunchtime trial break was filled with the sound of crunching tortilla chips.

Madison-area restaurants have been bringing food for dinner throughout the week; first Ruegsegger Farms on Monday, and on Tuesday, Underground Food Collective offered three different sandwich options: beef, turkey and vegetable. With a salad and salt and pepper potato chips it was $15 dollars. Again, proceeds went to Hershberger's defense. Wednesday night's food was provided by the Willy Street Co-op, and Thursday's vittles are from the 608 Community Supported Kitchen.

Madison is heavily represented among the supporters, and range from organic foods proponents to the decidedly well-heeled.

There is an active raw milk group composed of mothers in the Madison area that defies typical natural-foods stereotypes. They are here because they have used raw milk to treat their children's asthma and eczema. One mother volunteered that drinking raw milk for just a few short months had kept her son out of the ER for asthma.

Another, a former Madisonian, flew in from California to show support for Hershberger because of similar health benefits her family received from the farmer's raw milk. There is a sense of both fear and outrage that raw milk will no longer be available for their children.

Hershberger supporters are eager to meet each other, with strangers striking up conversations regarding their relationship to the farmer and raw milk issues.

In the evenings, Los Angeles food rights attorney Ajna Sharma-Wilson has recapped the day's proceedings along with food activist David Gumpert. Sharma-Wilson participated in the widely reported Rawesome trial in Los Angeles. In that case, the state used SWAT teams to raid a raw food co-op in Venice Beach.

Of the Hershberger case, Sharma-Wilson says, "The state is choosing to show maybe only 25% of reality. But juries aren't dumb; they know they're not being told things." In this case, "things" include the raw milk Hershberger is on trial for selling to his club members.

Sharma-Wilson's greater concern with the trial is what it says about a society that spends such considerable resources prosecuting a small dairy farmer. "I have child abuse cases with less paperwork than this. Where is our [tax] money going?"

In the courtroom, the constant objections by prosecutors -- which are largely sustained by Judge Guy Reynolds -- elicit visceral reactions. There are chuckles when the absurdities of the proceedings reach a peak, and there are audible groans when the prosecutors' arguments seem bent on concealing the facts of the case. Tuesday, after an exchange between prosecutors and defense, a woman in the gallery began to softly cry.

"Ninety percent or more of the states objections are being sustained," Sharma-Wilson estimates. "The judge is deferring to the state. We all know that, but the question is if the jury sees that."

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