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Farmer Unintentionally Becomes Wisconsin's Raw Milk Poster Child

A state Senate committee voted 3-2 Tuesday morning to allow Wisconsin farmers sell unpasteurized milk, if they meet health and safety regulations and sell directly to customers. The bill now heads to the full Senate.

However, critics remain, including Gov. Walker. He fears raw milk sales hold the potential of damaging Wisconsin’s multi-billion dollar dairy industry.

Vernon Hershberger is one of the farmers that could be licensed under the bill. He grew up on his dad’s organic farm in rural Ohio.

“Even though at that time he was the laughing stock of the community to farm organically because there wasn’t any big price for your product or anything but he just believed that way.”

Hershberger left the farm and built furniture at a nearby shop, while he married and started a family. But farming was in his bones and called him to Wisconsin.

“Our main reason for moving out here was for farmland.”

Gradually, Herschberger shifted the land from conventional to organic. His 157 acres now supports the 35 cows he milks.

We step into the barn where eldest son Stephen is handling the chore this evening.

“The one going out that’s a Jersey and that small one is a Jersey also. And the the big black ones – those are crossbreds between Brown Swiss and Holstein.”

Each cow placidly steps into position for its turn to be milked, then quietly heads back out onto the rolling fields.

Hershberger and the more senior of his eight sons built this milking parlor themselves.

Fourteen-year-old Wayne is filling half-gallon glass jugs in the adjacent room.

“This is where the milk comes from the stainless steel pipelines into the bowl and when it gets to a certain level, it flushes it out down the pipeline. We have l0 Jersey cows and we have people who are willing to pay easily $1 more for this milk because of the high butterfat.”

Hershberger says he didn’t set out to become a raw milk poster child. But over time, he says neighbors – retired farmers who gave up their cows – missed their fresh milk. They asked Hershberger to set some aside.

“In 2003 we started doing that. They came and asked for milk but we never expected to do something like this word of mouth. Today we range throughout the year between 200 and 300 families who come to the farm.”

They helped Hershberger build what resembles a small upscale convenience store, where he now sells products – everything from honey to sausage – some items from neighbors others from more distant producers. But his number one seller remains his own unpasteurized milk.

Son Wayne is dating each jug because, as Hershberger explains, milk has a two-day shelf life – period.

“There’s a date on there – a “sell by” date. So this is Saturday night, all this stuff comes off the shelf – we eat it ourselves or dump it to the pigs.”

In June 2010, state agriculture officials appeared at the farm and stretched yellow tape across the pantry’s freezers. The state ordered him to halt his operation immediately until he procured licenses to sell from his home base.

Hershberger argued that this was not a commercial operation but a buyers’ club.

“It was five o’clock that day when they left. We had nowhere to ship our milk – the cows have to be milked. So by the next morning at 6 o’clock we as a family had agreed to go ahead and feed the family.”

Four criminal counts and months later, a jury decided Hershberger’s business did not need a license to operate.

He says his raw milk has never sickened any club member, because his cows are healthy and feed on grass and, he tests the milk monthly for bacteria.

"We also test it for the pathogens – the salmonella the E coli, There's four or five different pathogens we've always tested for."

Hershberger acknowledges raw milk CAN make people sick.

“It just depends where it comes from. From certain farms milk needs to be pasteurized. So DATCP (Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) has its place – they’re not an unneeded agency at all.”

Hershberger's eldest son, Stephen, after evening milking chores are complete.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.