In December, I was going to write about something that happened to us, but I was concerned that it might be in poor choice due to the circumstances. I feel liberated now to tell you the whole story, and ask that if you read this post, pass it on. People need to know what is happening to our independent farmers.
And above all else, the story I'm about to tell is not about us. Not at all. It's about a breach of people's personal freedoms.
About three years ago, June to be exact, Andy and I drove across the state of Wisconsin to support a farmer friend of ours. Truth be told, we didn't know him that well; had only met him once or twice since the inception of our own farm. However, we had a common bond with him: he sold farm fresh products directly to his farm members and so did we. So why, might you ask, did we take off a whole day of farm work to visit him?
We went because his farm had been raided the previous day by Department of Trade and Consumer Protection (DTCAP) officials and his farm store shut down. They claimed they were coming back the next day to confiscate all his food products, thousands of dollars worth of food, to dump them. All of this in the name of public safety and the fact that he had no applied for a few licenses from the state. Let me be clear: he was selling raw milk, but no one had been sick from his farm, ever.
In order to save his business and his farm, let alone his family of ten, this farmer did the only thing he felt right in his conscious to do: he called for support and opened the store up again the next day. In his mind, the consumers who depended on his whole, fresh food were more important than any licensing he might have to acquire. Besides that, because he was selling privately and not to the public...and did not have the licenses that most farmers have, he was not in the jurisdiction of the DTCAP to even come onto his property to shut him down.
We dropped our things, grabbed our [then] two children and drove. By the time we reached his farm and farm store, most of the initial supporters had left. But there were a few there left, to make sure any follow up by the DTCAP would be seen and recorded by the public.
They didn't come back...that day.
We spent the afternoon talking with our friend and enjoying watching our kids play with his. We left a few hours later wishing him well and promising to keep up to date with all that might play out. Then we drove home.
It turns out that a lot would happen between then and now. A lot.
We came home to a farm that wasn't really ours anymore. In a month, we made the connection with St. Brigid's Meadows and a short four weeks after that, left Foxwood Farm completely. We moved to La Crosse. In less than a year, we moved back to the Fox Valley, but lived in Winneconne. Just last March, we moved into Oshkosh to be closer to business with Gourmet Grassfed. In three years, we lived four places. I tell you this because last December, we were found.
We had been hearing about this impending trial for Vernon Hershberger, our friend whom we had supported that day. While we lost touch with him over the years, we stayed relatively abreast of his situation and his farm. Despite the fact he cut the yellow tape on his coolers and freezers, he remained in business for his large customer base. They are a very supportive group, demanding the right to purchase food directly from the farmer of their [well-researched] choice.
The trial had seen setbacks and postponements over the last couple years but a date seemed solid for Vernon: January 6th, 2013. About a month before, I was at my mother's house sewing diligently on a suede coat for Elly for Christmas. I got a call from Andy who was at home alone in the early afternoon. He said that two female field agents for the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) had visited looking for me. They were in town on other obligations and wanted to follow up with me on the day I had been at Vernon's farm with my kids. They wanted to know why I was there and what my relationship with Vernon was.
Andy told them to come back next week as I wouldn't be home until supper time. I couldn't imagine what they wanted or how I was involved. It would soon be revealed.
I came home that night and we talked some more about the odd incident and ate our meal. Shortly afterwards as we cleaned up from supper and the kids played, there came a knock on our front door. It was the two agents. They just happened to still be in town...a full six hours later. We knew this not to be simple coincidence. We had seen a police car parked in the next alley all day, something we had never seen before (or since). We ate with our window blinds up, so anyone from the street could see exactly when we sat down and when we finished our meal.
We got shivers as we realized our home had been under surveillance all day.
Thankfully we aren't the deceitful type. I came home just as Andy said I would. And they politely waited until we finished our meal to come in to question me.
A few weeks prior, a judge had ruled that lawyers seeking information could not subpoena reporters who might have knowledge about their interviewees. I don't really read a lot of extra news outside my interests, but this one caught my eye for some reason. The reason because glaringly clear that night. When the DOJ couldn't tap the reporter's resources for info about who was at Vernon's farm and when, they decided to go straight to the source.
Did I forget to mention that the day we traveled to Vernon's farm it was heavily covered by Madison papers and news crews? Maybe because I didn't think it was that big of a deal. As I said, he has support networks far and wide who are very passionate about food rights.
During our scant afternoon there, a man took a picture of my children and I walking down one of Vernon's grocery isles in the on-farm store. The journalist asked my permission and got our names. I never even knew the photo existed as I don't subscribe to any of the Madison papers. I never thought about it again.
But apparently the photo did run. And apparently I was one of three or four people the DOJ was trying to get to when they pressed the journalists present at the farm that day. They were the ones that went to the courts and found a ruling in their favor that they did not have to talk to the DOJ. And then the Department of Justice tracked us down, four houses and three years later.
We sat down, me nine months pregnant and Andy with his notepad. If they were taking notes, so you better believe was he! They questioned us for an hour, asking us all about that day, what we remembered and what our relationship was to Vernon. They asked us really subjective questions and pushed us to remember details about our farming that we didn't think were even relevant. You see, we had nothing to lose; yes, DOJ, we did sell raw milk. What does that matter in this case? It didn't, we were assured. Why then, we wondered, did they need to ask?
When they left, we talked to one of our lawyer friends who was intimate with the case being tried. She let us know that we were actually considered persons of great interest to the prosecution because we might aid in proving Vernon was selling food that day.
We didn't buy anything from him, though they asked us several different ways and repeatedly if we did, in any shape or form. We did not. Thank God.
A few weeks later, we got our subpoenas in the mail. We were going to trial. Thankfully for me (and Finn), the trial was postponed one more time to the end of May. I was concerned I would take the stand with a newborn or worse, in the midst of labor (I was due January 5th)!
So now it comes to it. We are scheduled to speak against one of our compatriots in the farming world because the state and even federal government are at odds with farmers who dare to make a living without them. If I sound jaded, it's because I am. I've seen a lot and experienced a lot to make this attitude a reality for me. However, I am hoping that a jury of right minded citizens, not politically minded officials, will see the folly in all of this.
If you are interested in learning more or even want to show support for Vernon and his family, this case will be a landmark case in the fight for food rights. Think you don't have to worry about it because you don't consume raw milk? Think again. They attempted to squelch all of his on-farm goods including grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and free-range eggs. And this is not an isolated case.
Follow the rabbit trail friends. Follow it and plead ignorance no longer. It's time to do something about the over-reach of our government and the quiet war they've waged against our rights and the rights of small farms.
Links to start the journey:
Farm Food Freedom Coalition: http://farmfoodfreedom.org/event/vernon-hershberger-trial
Farmers on Trial: http://www.farmersontrial.com/why-should-i-care/
Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund: http://www.farmtoconsumer.org
This link is the one that started it all. Please notice the photo on the left side. But most importantly, read the article: http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/govt_and_politics/blog/capitol-report-deputies-inspectors-make-early-morning-visit-to-raw/article_4f5d084e-74ac-11df-9b16-001cc4c002e0.html
As I said at the beginning, this post is not about Andy and I. It's a small facet of a large story that supersedes even Vernon's case. Use the links above as a launch pad. And take the blue pill.
Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on Google+.