Wisconsin is one of 18 states in America where it is illegal to sell milk that has not been pasteurized.
"The sale or distribution of raw or unpasteurized milk is illegal," reads a statement by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "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."
According to data compiled by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, there are currently only 10 states that allow retail sales of raw milk, with most of the others limiting sales only to the farm.
Those who defend raw milk restrictions believe that raw milk is inherently dangerous no matter how it is produced.
"The modern milking machine and stainless steel tank, along with efficient packaging and distribution, make pasteurization totally unnecessary for the purposes of sanitation," explain raw milk proponents Sally Fallon Morell and Mary G. Enig, Ph.D., in their book, "Nourishing Traditions."
"Raw milk contains lactic acid-producing bacteria that protect against pathogens."
Local chef and activist LouLou Guolee, agrees. She has been drinking raw milk off and on for most of her life.
"My grandfather had a farm in Nashua, N.H.," she says. "I remember standing ten or twenty feet from a cow as my aunt milked it and aimed it right into my mouth. That experience – the warm, creamy milk -- made me want to be a chef."
She took her love of food with her and traveled – cooking on a farm in Switzerland where "Lola the cow would stick her face in my window and lick me every morning" and eventually ending up working as a cook in Colorado, where she continued to develop an appreciation for good, wholesome ingredients like grass-fed beef, farm fresh vegetables and raw milk and raw milk products.
When she and her husband, Johnny, decided to move back to Milwaukee for him to take a teaching job, Guolee says she was shocked to find that raw milk wasn’t accessible to her.
"It killed me," she says. "It’s the land of fifty million cows, and I couldn’t get milk."
So, she began connecting with national raw milk activists and eventually local farmers. One of the farmers was a man by the name of Vernon Hershberger.
An Amish farmer in Sauk County, Hershberger established a herd-share cooperative through which investing members entrust Hershberger with the care and milking of heifers in return for distribution of raw milk.
Guolee joined the cooperative. She also became the conduit for Hershberger to distribute milk to members in the Milwaukee area.
"I heard from so many people that they were driving for two and a half hours to get milk," she says. "And many of them were scared of the repercussions. That made me angry."
But, despite the fact that she was able to procure milk for herself and assist others in the process, Guolee says it still bothered her to think that access to raw milk and other healthy foods was so difficult.
Hershberger had, after all, become a prominent face in the raw milk debate.
When Goolee met him, he’d just been taken to trial, having been charged in 2010 with producing milk, operating a dairy plant without a license and selling food at a retail establishment, and violating a holding order placed on his products by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
It bothered her that farmers like Hershberger are constantly under the gun – prohibited from running clean organic farms and freely selling their milk to eager consumers. But, at the time, she didn’t know what could be done.
In a courtroom last June – in what raw milk proponents saw as a victory – a Sauk County jury threw out three of four criminal charges against Hershberger, ruling that the government did not have jurisdiction over the farmer since he was providing food to willing consumers as part of a private agreement. Hershberger was charged, however, with a misdemeanor for violating a holding order on his raw milk stores. And, despite an appeal, the conviction was upheld.
Since that time, jurors have stepped forward with claims that information, which would likely have led the jury to acquit Hershberger of the misdemeanor, was unnecessarily withheld from them. Several of the jurors were so moved by the case that they now want to join Hershberger’s buying club to be able to access raw milk for their families, indicating that it seems a precious waste of state resources to target a man supplying wholesome food to informed and willing buyers.
It’s a message that resonates with Guolee, who decided this past winter to plan a fund-raiser for Hershberger and others who are fighting for fair food.
"It started out as a small idea, a small function," she says. "I was thinking maybe a potluck. But, when Turner Hall gifted me their space, I knew I had to make it bigger."
And bigger is a bit of an understatement.
The Food Freedom Fundraiser, which will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 26, beginning at 5 p.m. at the Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. 4th St., will boast big names like Joel Salatin, an activist Virginia farmer made famous when he was featured in Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, "The Omnivore’s Dilemma."
Other speakers will include Vernon Hershberger, David Gumpert, author of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights," raw milk activist and filmmaker Max Kane, Elizabeth Rich of the Farm to Consumer Legal Fund, and Gretchen Meade of Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Initiative.
Vendors – including Happy Mouth Organics, Brew City Gardens, Backyard Organics USA and the Weston Price Foundation will be present, selling meats, cheeses, vegetables and eco-friendly gardening supplies like vermicompost. And entertainment will be provided by Milwaukee folk-bluegrass band, Calamity Janes.
Tickets for the event are $25, with a reduced rate of $10 for students. $50 will grant attendees VIP admission, which includes a reception and meet and greet with Joel Salatin. All proceeds from the event will go to support the Hershberger farm, which survived a fire in April of last year, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and local groups including the Victory Garden Initiative.
Guolee says the aim of the event is to "create awareness, eliminate fear-mongering and support farmers like Vernon who want to make a difference."
"Ultimately it’s about food freedom," she says. "I want people to be able to be healthy. I want them to be able to have access to good, healthy food."
Tickets for the Food Freedom Fundraiser can be purchased online at pabsttheater.org or at The Pabst Theater box office at 144 E. Wells St.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.