Raw milk is not cocaine or heroin or pot. It's not illegal to acquire it in Wisconsin, says Joe Plasterer, who freely admits to purchasing it for his family.
The Madison resident and his wife, Melinda Starkweather, started buying it years ago when they noticed their son just wasn't thriving.
But it is illegal for farmers to sell it - which is why Plasterer's supplier, Vernon Hershberger, is about to be put on trial in Sauk County Circuit Court. Hershberger faces up to a year in jail and all sort of fines for, technically, failing to acquire licenses to produce milk, operate a dairy plant, and run a retail eatery. Of course, you can't get a license to do what Hershberger wants to do: sell raw milk to folks like Plasterer and Starkweather.
They think it's "absolutely absurd" that Hershberger is being prosecuted for selling them something they thoroughly researched, have given to their kids for years and, frankly, could easily acquire elsewhere. They are convinced it's the best thing for their family and are well able to weigh the benefits against any potential risks.
There are some, according to no less authoritative a source than the Raw Milk Policy Working Group appointed by former state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Rod Nilsestuen back in 2010.
Approximately 25 percent of all foodborne outbreaks of disease in humans before 1938 were associated with unpasteurized milk or dairy products, according to the group's report, and it is possible that consumers of raw milk who get sick can shed bacteria and spread the infection to others. The same report notes, though, that better sanitation practices on farms and the use of temperature controls to keep milk cool help reduce some of the risks.
There are ways to make sure farmers aren't milking sick cows and running bacteria mills.
Plasterer says, personally, he wouldn't mind seeing farmers sell raw milk at their roadside stands the same way they sell fresh tomatoes. He also says, however, that he'd also be comfortable with a system wherein raw milk sales were only allowed with regulatory oversight - which is exactly what the Raw Milk Policy Working Group decided.
That's not a complete coincidence. The group included everyone from doctors to dairy science professors to cheesemakers and dairy farmers. But it also included Plasterer himself.
Another member, Dick Cates, both a grass-fed beef farmer and member of the DATCP board, emphasized that the group didn't recommend outright that the Legislature allow raw milk sales, but it did recommend a way such a law could be structured - a subtle difference that, I think, allowed the various interests on the board to reach a consensus.
The way I read the report, it's pretty clear raw milk can and should be sold directly by farmers willing to put up with a little bit of licensing and scrutiny. That's the way it is in most other places. Raw milk can be sold in a variety of circumstances in no less than 27 states, according to the report. Thirteen states go so far as to allow the sale of raw milk in retail stores. None, though, allow raw milk sales without some regulation that helps reduce the possibility of animal disease and unhealthy bacteria counts. Only the nuttiest zealots would argue against that.
Only the close-minded, on the other hand, would argue that a guy like Vernon Hershberger - a small businessman as well as a farmer - should be completely precluded from giving people like Joe Plasterer and Melinda Starkweather what they want.
And all they want - and now have - is a healthy family.
All these years later, says Joe, "the boy who was sick is six-one, and about to run cross country in college."