Farmer's stance on use of Bovine Growth Hormone vindicated?

Wisconsin farmer Nick Kirch still remembers the day his ex-wife came home in tears after being verbally lambasted by a co-worker.

It was 1993, and the Food and Drug Administration had just given farmers the green light to inject their cows with a controversial product called bovine growth hormone. Kirch's wife, a registered nurse at Meriter Hospital, was then confronted by another nurse, who went off on an anti-farm riff that left her shaken.

"She was upset that one of her co-workers came up to her and said, 'I'll never drink milk again. I don't trust any of you farmers. You're only in it for the money,'" Kirch recounted.

Kirch's former spouse wasn't the only one impacted by that glimpse into consumer anger. He then decided to resist using BGH, even though it boosts milk production in cows. "If that was the impression consumers had of farmers, why should they trust us?" he reasoned. "I think we lost so much trust that I wanted to get it back."

Kirch has operated Blue Marble Family Farm, located just outside of Barneveld, since 1988. He fells his refusal to inject the hormone into his 75-cow herd has earned him customer loyalty, and recent events give him the right to say "I told you so" about BGH.

Some people in the farm industry expected the storm to blow over. Perhaps it has. But while Kirch does not believe the majority of consumers are obsessed with BGH, there remains a vocal contingent that is adamantly opposed to the use of it — including people in his health-oriented customer base.

BGH Vindication?

Despite consumer apprehension about BGH, Kirch's decision wasn't risk-free.

After FDA approval, farmers were assured that using BGH was the way to make more money, and several interests applied pressure. Kirch said that among them were Monsanto (the maker of agricultural products that produced the artificial growth hormone under the brand name Posilac), financial institutions giving farm credit, and university experts.

It was all about cash flow and getting the most milk per animal, Kirch said, regardless of what it did to the animals (one of the knocks against BGH is that it harms cows) or what consumers thought.

Kirch, who bottles and pasteurizes his own milk right on the farm (in glass bottles, no less), admits to having "a little bit" of trouble securing financing when it came time to build the bottling plant. The bank, mindful of the unique features of his operation, questioned his approach: Why don't you milk 500 cows? Why are you doing something nobody else does?

While Kirch firmly believes the non-BGH approach is a competitive differentiator, making consumers aware of his choice isn't easy. He does it mostly through word-of-mouth and his Web site, because one obvious option — advertising non-BGH on the labels of his milk products — carries a government-imposed complication.

"Labeling is an issue because if you put BGH-free or no BGH on your label, you also have to put a disclaimer that's a couple of paragraphs long that says there has never been any proof that BGH has caused any damage," Kirch explained.

A sense of vindication came last year. Citing its struggle to gain consumer acceptance, Monsanto sold to Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly, the piece of its business that produces Posilac. "I do feel vindication from that," Kirch acknowledged. "I think they [Monsanto] realize that consumers are against them on this one."

The FDA has said there is little scientific evidence to support the view that Posilac poses a cancer risk for humans, but the agency's defense of BGH doesn't impress Kirch. "I can't claim that it causes cancer," he concedes, "but it seems strange to me that a person competing in the Olympics gets kicked out for using human growth hormones, but we can use bovine growth hormones and feed the milk from those cows to our children — for how many years?"

Kirch cites economic arguments as well. He does not believe BGH would be worth the $4,000 or $5,000 in additional revenue that his small farm would gain on an annual basis. The economies of scale work better for large farm operations. However, Kirch notes that the extra milk production drives down the price of the milk, hurting smaller farmers and increasing the need for federal farm price supports.

Blue Marble Family Farm bottles 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of milk per week, with the capacity to scale weekly production up to 80,000 pounds. It will need that additional capacity to geographically reach beyond current retail and restaurant outlets in Madison, Verona, Blue Mounds, and Chicago.

Its milk products — milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter — are sold at Metcalfe's Market, Sentry Foods, Pierce's Markets, Miller & Sons Super Market in Verona, the Regent Street and Willy Street Co-ops, plus coffee shops and bakeries. The milk is used also in chocolates and for cooking at some higher-end restaurants.

Soiling their Reputation?

While he expects the BGH controversy to linger, in part because some farmers will continue to use it, Kirch has turned his attention to another controversial farm issue — the subject of GMOs (genetically manufactured organisms). Monsanto uses GMOs in its crop seeds to protect against drought and insects, which supposedly reduces the application of insecticides. According to Kirch, most GMO testing has been done on plants, but little has been done to examine their impact on soil. (The FDA has left them unregulated, but various units of government have banned them, as have some communities in ballot initiatives.)

Kirch thinks GMOs are a big problem "waiting to blow up in our face."

"It's a concern for everyone," said Kirch, who grows corn. "It's getting to be huge. Again, it's Monsanto's number one player, and it's because there is so much out there that you don't really have a handle on it. They don't separate it. It could be corn, soybeans, or what have you."

According to Kirch, there are already some weed species becoming Round Up resistant because they have mutated. Another issue, he said, is with the corn borer insecticide that's placed in plants.

When the plant dies and rots in the ground, he said, it kills other insects that are beneficial to the soil. And, he further opined, it starts creating different kinds of organisms that fare better than other organisms that would otherwise benefit from the usual checks and balances.

"So something is getting an edge because something else is suppressed because of something with the GMOs," Kirch concluded.

From consumers, there is one question he hears over and over: Are there GMOs in your product? "No, there is not," Kirch says at first, "but with anything I buy commercially, there is no way to trace it. So I don't know for sure if there isn't."

Losing our Marble

The "Blue Marble" in Blue Marble Family Farm is a reference to Mother Earth (this big blue marble we live on). For Kirch, environmental sustainability isn't a passing thought. He has installed solar panels on the bottling plant, which produce one-third of his electricity, but he would like to do more to capture energy from wind and geothermal technology.

Geothermal cooling, which is practiced in Israel and New Zealand, would involve underground piping, and wind capture would require the installation of a wind turbine. Kirch is bumping up against bureaucratic and other government resistance, partly because some of his ideas haven't been tried in Wisconsin, but he is willing to have Blue Marble Family Farm serve as a test case.

That would take a lot of money and effort, but Kirch's enthusiasm for sustainable farming is infectious.

Opposition to BGH, concern over GMOs, and sustainability are examples of how Kirch would like to reconnect consumers with farmers, something he believes has been lost with the trend toward consolidation and larger farm operations. The way to reconnect, he said, is through small farms.

"Farms have gotten so big, I want to call them 'factoritized,'" he said, "and if the consumer and the farmer don't even touch anymore, they can't look each other in the eye. They don't trust each other."