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Raw milk farmer acquitted on 3 of 4 counts

Attorney Glen Reynolds cross examines a witness as defendant Vernon Hershberger (right) looks on at the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo on May 21. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Gary Porter, Pool)

BARABOO, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin dairy farmer was acquitted early Saturday on three of four counts related to the sale of raw milk.

Dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger was found not guilty of charges alleging he sold retail food, produced milk and operated a dairy plant without proper state licenses, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

He was found guilty of one count of violating a holding order placed on products at his farm after a 2010 raid. Hershberger could get up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine when he is sentenced at a later date.

The Sauk County jury deliberated four hours before reaching its verdict about 1 a.m. Saturday.

With few exceptions, Wisconsin farmers can’t sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers because it may contain pathogens that could make people sick. But many believe unprocessed milk contains bacteria that boost the immune system.

Hershberger’s supporters have said he was targeted because he sold the raw milk through a private buying club with several hundred members. The Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates for legalizing raw-milk sales in Wisconsin and other states, said the outcome will set a precedent.

“This is a victory for the food rights movement,” said one of Hershberger’s attorneys, Elizabeth Rich.

Hershberger said he plans to return to his Loganville farm and continue to run his store without a license because it’s a members-only buying club.

Hershberger, 41, testified Friday that he felt betrayed by state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials who raided his farm in June 2010 and destroyed 2,000 pounds of milk. He was afraid other food would be destroyed too, so he violated the hold order, took food for his family and allowed members of his buying club to remove items. He called that an act of civil disobedience.

Hershberger said he had wanted to develop a business plan that would be acceptable to the state and maintain the Amish tradition of sharing food with the community.

“I tried to work with people. I would have been happy to sit down with them and come up with a workable solution, and I would still do that,” he testified.

Prosecutors depicted Hershberger as someone who flouted the law by not getting a $265 retail license. Department of Justice attorney Eric Defort said Hershberger’s operation was a retail store, complete with a product price list, cash register and credit card machine.

“This is a place where you go to purchase things. You saw the products labeled with prices, on shelves, in coolers … meat, pork, bison, cheese, juices, all kinds of products – all labeled and priced for sale,” Defort told jurors.

Defense attorney Glen Reynolds said the operation was nothing like a Costco, Sam’s Club or regular grocery store. Prices were flexible, Reynolds said, and if club members could not afford to feed their family, they could get fresh food for free.

Much of the trial’s testimony focused on why prosecutors believed Grazin’ Acres was a retail store. In March 2010, the store had $25,426 in sales, according to prosecution witnesses. Defense witnesses described it as a place where members did chores in exchange for the right to buy unpasteurized milk and other products.

Hershberger’s net income for 2010 was about $45,000, Reynolds said. He asked jurors to question why the state would come down so hard on Hershberger.

“This is as close to Prohibition as anything I have ever seen, but this time it’s milk and an Amish farmer, rather than liquor and gangsters,” Reynolds said.

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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