Why is Sauk County dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger on trial for selling raw milk from a facility that inspectors rated with an A grade? After a highly unusual armed raid on his farm in 2010? Speakers at a panel held Tuesday evening at the Al Ringling Theatre in Baraboo trained their gaze squarely on "Big Dairy."
"Follow the dollars," says Michigan pig farmer Mark Baker. Baker has become a well-known figure in the food freedom movement since he ran afoul of the Michigan DNR's invasive species order. Ostensibly meant to curb a feral pig problem, the order makes it illegal to raise any pig variety except domesticated, hog house-raised swine. Baker raises Mangalitsa, a furry heritage variety prized for its rich, dark meat.
Baker was part of the panel at the Ringling, just one element of the week's pro-raw milk, pro-food freedom events held across the street from where Vernon Hershberger is being tried for selling raw milk.
"What the milk business does not what want to have happen is a thousand Vernon Hershbergers servicing a community like this one," said Baker. "They want to nip it in the bud. They want to stop small farmers in their tracks."
Vince Hundt, also on the panel, agreed: "DATCP [Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection] doesn't want to be harassing little farmers. Someone is telling them to do that. The groups that lined up behind the raw milk ban are Foremost Farms, Dean Foods, Wisconsin's Dairymen's Association and the Grocers Association. It is a battle over who gets to sell food."
Hundt is himself a farmer as well as a member of the Wisconsin Raw Milk Association. "In Wisconsin, if the sale of milk directly to consumers were legal, there would be a few hundred farms with 200 or so customers each. And big business thinks that the time to kill that possibility is right now."
Alvin Schlangen, a farmer who fought a raw milk ban in Minnesota noted that raw milk transactions represent a renewed connection between communities and their food sources that has big business scared.
"We're doing so many things to connect people with their food again," said Schlangen. "It's hard to imagine stopping that connection unless you were prejudiced by profits somehow." He noted that what Hershberger was selling was good for his community: "When I saw Vernon's list of 16 pages of healthy foods that he sold through his store, I couldn't help thinking that they [the state] are looking at food safety in a manipulated way and taking the life out of it" -- presumably because of the influence of agribusiness, Schlangen concluded.
Finally, Mark Baker's outrage over Hershberger's fate was palpable: "What I saw in court was disgusting. Here's all this money and resource to go after this one small farmer. But if he's successful [in fighting it,] it will be market share [big companies] don't have."
More food freedom events at the Al Ringling Theatre are listed in the full schedule for the trial week.