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rBST decision poses dilemma for dairy farmers

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By CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont’s top agriculture official said he is in favor of weaning the state’s dairy farmers from synthetic growth hormone, but he expects milk processors to help them do it.

Dean Foods and H.P. Hood Inc. have both announced recently that they would no longer accept milk from cows that have been treated with rBST (recumbent bovine somatropin), an artificial form of a naturally occurring hormone. Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr this week said he welcomed the change but said that the processors should compensate farmers for going without the hormone.

rBST, developed and marketed by Monsanto Corp. under the name Posilac, increase milk production by an average of 10 extra pounds per day.

“When they say the consumers don’t want milk from rBST-treated cows … then so be it. Fair enough,” Kerr said in an interview with the Independent. “But you need to compensate farmers because their production costs are going to go up.”

The two processors combined supply about 90 percent of the Northeast’s fluid milk market.

The exact amount of use of rBST in Vermont is unknown because Monsanto does not release figures specific to the state. Kerr estimates that about 20 percent of Vermont’s 141,000 dairy cows receive rBST treatments, compared to Monsanto’s estimate that 30 percent of America’s dairy herds in general receive the treatment.

Some farmers have chosen not to use rBST because opponents have painted it as unhealthful. Kerr felt that safety concerns about rBST are unfounded, but said the opinion of the general public is more important. “This, to my mind, is a consumer-driven change,” he said.

Dropping rBST would result in a decrease in milk production, but Kerr said alternative methods could make up much of the difference. “In the short term, losing rBST is hard, but… it’s very clear that we could make (milk) in this state without rBST,” he said.

He argued that milk produced without using the artificial hormone would command a higher price in stores, which he wants to make sure is passed on to consumers. “(Milk processors) would be grossly unfair not to pay farmers more.”

Douglas DiMento, a spokesman for Agri-Mark Cabot, said that the processors in question have already taken advantage of demand for milk without rBST by raising their retail prices on some dairy products. “If you look at the increase in the per-gallon price, it’s already substantial,” he said.

DiMento agreed with Kerr that the increase in retail price needs to be passed on to farmers. “The fact that they’re getting more money for their product is a good thing and I hope some of that money trickles down to farmers.”

Some kind of compensation would be needed to help farmers stop using rBST. Taking cows off Posilac abruptly can affect their health and future milk production, so farmers would have suffer decreased milk production without an increased price per gallon.

Dairy cooperatives usually compensate their farmers to help them change from conventional to organic production, but according to DiMento, cooperatives could not do that to help farmers stop using rBST unless they had already received the benefits of the increased prices from the processors. “We can’t just pay a premium unless we get it from the marketplace,” he said.

Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge does not use rBST on its herd of Holsteins and includes that fact in some of its marketing materials. Monument Farms official Peter James said he thought the changeover by the bigger milk processors was a smart move. “If that’s what the customer is asking for, I think it’s a good selling point,” he said.

However, in the long run James doubted it would have a significant effect on retail milk prices. “I don’t know if it’s going to result in higher retail pricing because it’s going to compete with organic, which is already (expensive).”

But Kerr felt that a comparison to organic milk was valuable for the opposite reason. If some consumers are willing to pay a significantly higher price for organic milk, he argued, many more would be willing to pay a slightly higher price for milk that is not certified organic, but still comes from cows that have not received growth hormones.

Kerr’s hope is that people would be willing to pay extra for milk they see as more natural, and dropping rBST would be an effective way of making Vermont milk stand out.

“If they’re willing to pay $6 to $7 a gallon for organic milk, why wouldn’t they be willing to pay 50 cents more for milk from cows (not treated with BST)?” Kerr said.

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