RACINE COUNTY — Even dairy farmers who drink their own raw milk disagree about whether Wisconsin farmers should be allowed to sell it.
The issue arose in a high-profile case that rallied supporters of raw milk when the Wisconsin Department of Justice prosecuted Sauk County farmer Vernon Hershberger for selling raw milk. A jury acquitted him of three criminal licensing charges about two weeks ago.
But Hershberger then told a newspaper he’d never stopped selling raw milk to his 200-member buyers club, thus violating a holding order to not sell it. Now the DOJ wants him jailed.
Thirty-one states allow some level of raw milk sales and 19 do not, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Wisconsin allows only extremely limited exceptions under its ban. In 2010 former Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have legalized raw milk sales.
Raw milk advocates argue it tastes better and contains nutrients that pasteurization destroys. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state most nutrients remain after milk is pasteurized.
But many in the dairy industry fear damaging milk’s reputation in the event of an illness outbreak.
Burlington-area dairy farmer Susan Crane, who is also a nurse, competely agrees with the need for pasteurization. Neither she nor her husband drink their own raw milk, she said. Pasteurization also gives milk a longer shelf life, she added.
But Kathy Baumeister, a former Burlington-area dairy farmer with her husband, Darrell, said their entire family drank their raw milk until they sold their herd nine years ago.
“We love it, our kids love it. We never had an issue, but we took very good care of the milk,” Kathy Baumeister said. It immediately went into a glass container and into the refrigerator.
“It was never sitting around. That’s where the issue is,” she said.
“Processing takes away some of the nutrients,” she continued. “(But) if the milk is not taken care of properly, the bacteria grows extremely fast, and it can make people very, very ill. I guess the State of Wisconsin cannot guarantee that those wanting to sell raw milk are going to take care of it properly, and there is the issue of: How can the health department monitor it properly?”
She added, “I can’t definitely say one side or the other is correct, because I can see both sides.”
Burlington Town Chairman Ralph Rice, a former dairy farmer, thinks consumers should be free to buy raw milk. “I have never drank anything but raw milk,” said Rice, 79. He prefers it so strongly to pasteurized milk, “If I go to a restaurant, I don’t buy milk.”
He also said, “When you heat it and treat it, you kill everything in it that’s good.” In fact, Rice said he knows people who are lactose-intolerant with pasteurized milk but have no problems with raw milk.
Referring to Hershberger’s customers, Rice said, “It’s the people’s choice to buy it. Now peddling it, that’s different.”
Town of Burlington dairy farmer Dave Elderbrook thinks farmers should be able to sell raw milk. “We have sold to neighbors for years till the lawsuits and all of that started,” Elderbrook said, “and then we quit.
“We have people stop all the time and ask for it, but we won’t do it anymore because of the liability.”
Former Raymond dairy farmer Bob Hunter drank his own raw milk and also supports consumer choice.
He acknowledged Hershberger found a way around the law that
ultimately worked but said, “I still think when a consumer wants to buy raw milk it should be up to them. I don’t really care if the state likes it or not. I think a farmer is providing what the citizens want.”
Hunter said, “(The government) is trying to stop it by jumping on the farmer. ... (Hershberger) wasn’t sneaking it into the marketplace; people know what they were buying.”
“It’s a sticky issue,” said Burlington-area farmer Brian Schaal, who milks nearly 300 cows and drinks his own raw milk. “Personally, I don’t like the government making rules about what’s best for the public.
“But on the other hand,” Schaal continued, “what if someone buys raw
milk and would get sick — who’s responsible? Is it the person or the farmer?
“And the whole dairy
industry would get a black eye.”
Like Elderbrook, Yorkville farmer John Vyvyan said “We have people come in here all the time wanting to buy raw milk” — especially Hispanics, who want to make cheese with it.
Vyvyan said of Wisconsin’s ban: “As time has gone on, I actually agree with (the state) more. I drink my own (raw) milk, and I think it’s better for you.”
But Vyvyan’s not sure what a sanitation-happy city dweller could tolerate and said, “I would never want to get — especially somebody’s child sick,” he said, “and who knows? I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
RAW MILK: QUESTIONS, ANSWERS
From the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s frequently asked questions:
Can a dairy farmer legally sell raw milk?
No. The sale or distribution of raw or unpasteurized milk is illegal. The law exempts the ‘incidental sale’ of raw milk directly to a consumer at the dairy farm where the milk is produced, for consumption by that consumer (or the consumer’s family or nonpaying guests). But those sales are also illegal if done as a regular business, or if they involve advertising of any kind.
Can dairy farm employees buy raw milk from the dairy farm where they work?
Yes. Employees can buy raw milk for their personal or household consumption, provided that the licensed dairy farm operator declares them as employees for payroll and tax-reporting purposes.
Source: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection