For 15 years, the farmers of Agri-Mark — New England’s largest dairy cooperative, which merged with Cabot Creamery Cooperative in 1992 — have been fighting hoof-and-udder over whether to permit the use of synthetic bovine growth hormones in their herds. Bowing to rising pressure from consumers, the 15-member board of directors, 14 of whom are dairy farmers, recently voted to phase out BST (bovine somatotropin) by this August.
Although Agri-Mark Spokesperson Doug DiMento would not say what percentage of the cooperative’s 1300 farmers are currently using BST — which was developed by Monsanto and sold last year to Eli Lilly — he did indicate that the group is small but vocal. “Those farmers who are using synthetic BST and are being told not to are going to lose tens of thousands of dollars apiece, and this will be one of the worst years in recent history in terms of milk prices . . . You have an FDA-approved technology we’re asking them not to use,” he says, then adds that for some farms, “It’s gonna be a question of survival.”
Given the cost and DiMento’s obvious doubts, whence the board’s decision? It’s what consumers wanted. “Our job is to protect the markets long term for the farmers,” DiMento says. Until recently, he explains, most of the concerned consumers focused their attention on fluid milk, “but now some of our cheese customers and nonfat dry-milk customers are looking for milk from cows that aren’t using synthetic BST. It has broadened across the industry in the last several months and, whether we like it or not, the marketplace makes the final decision.” Furthermore, DiMento notes, Vermont consumers have been particularly vocal in their distaste for the hormone.
By August, farmers will be required to sign an affidavit affirming that they don’t give their cows BST. But don’t expect to see Cabot labels reflect the change. “We’ve always tried to segregate milk . . . so we didn’t have farmers who use synthetic BST going into the Cabot plant,” DiMento says. “Since you can’t prove whether farmers use it or not, labeling has always been a sticky issue, but I don’t think you’ll see anything on our packages of cheese.”