CABOT, Vt. - For all intents and purposes, the New England dairy industry will be "rbST-free" by the end of summer 2009.
Facing the threat of losing markets for its highly successful Cabot brand of cheeses, cooperative owner Agri-Mark has told its member farmers that if they want to continue using bovine somatotropin to boost production their milk will have to go to a cheese plant in northern New York State at a cost to them of up to $2 per hundredweight to cover the trucking.
"Cabot sales were at risk, and we were going to lose markets if we continued to accept milk from rbST-treated cows at our Middlebury and Cabot (Vt.) cheese plants and our West Springfield (Mass.) butter and powder plant," says Bob Wellington, senior vice president of Agri-Mark, the largest producer cooperative in New England.
Milk going into Class I, or fluid, sales had been essentially rbST-free in New England for at least the past two years. Promotion of "no artificial hormones" milk was a key to rapid growth for Portland, Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy starting a decade ago, and the rest of the fluid processors doing business in the six-state area eventually followed suit and committed to accepting only supplies from non-rbST herds.
The two primary marketers of farm milk in New England, Agri-Mark and Dairy Marketing Services/Dairy Farmers of America, have wrestled with assembling and marketing two separate streams of farm milk, one from farms using rbST and one from farms that shun the technology.
Agri-Mark's board of directors has set Aug. 1 as the cutoff for any rbST milk coming into its system, a decision which essentially is the deadline for both its member farms and all the rest of the New England and eastern New York farms shipping into the New England market.
That's because Agri-Mark operates the only major manufacturing plants that serve to balance the region's milk supply, Cabot, Middlebury and West Springfield. Milk beyond the needs of fluid processors, ice cream plants and a handful of small cheese enterprises has to find a home somewhere, and Agri-Mark is the only entity that can economically handle it.
"West Springfield is the big one, as it serves to balance the New England market, and much of New York State, too," Wellington says. Closures of cheese plants, particularly a large facility in Hinesburg, Vt., last fall, have made the job of clearing the region's milk market challenging over the past year.
Customers for rbST farm milk in New York have decreased sharply, with only a couple of Class I handlers and a handful of manufacturing plants left willing to receive product from producers employing the artificial hormone.
Wellington says the vast majority of producers who have continued to use rbST even as markets for their milk have withered now seem to be accepting the reality that they'll have to abandon the practice within a few months.
"I'd say most have seen it coming for quite a while, and feel if it impacts everybody the same way they can accept it. Some will wait right up to the very end, because they believe it makes them money," Wellington says.
He adds that Agri-Mark waited as long as it could to close the door on rbST, but the pressures coming back from consumers and retailers forced the cooperative to protect its Cabot brand.