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MORE CONCERN OVER HORMONE-TREATED MILK

Once again, five years after the original debate, certain consumer groups have raised questions about health threats to people who drink milk from dairy herds whose owners treat cows with a synthetic hormone that matches one found naturally in cows. The hormone, known commercially as Posilac and generically as Bgh or Bst, is used to increase the milk output and prolong the lives of selected cows. Many New York dairy farmers use Bgh as another production tool.

The worried consumer groups persuaded the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to publish their concerns. Professor Dale Bauman of Cornell's animal science department, who has been associated with the development and use of Bgh, repeated his oft-expressed view: "Drinking milk from treated cows is no threat to human health." Bauman added that the issues raised are not new and have been dealt with in prior studies. An array of public, private and peer-reviewed medical organizations have asserted the safety of milk from Bgh-treated cows. Moreover, New York officials have argued that there is no way to distinguish the milk from treated and untreated cows. Bauman conceded that there may be questions about the health of treated cows, but farmers contend that Bgh extends their lives rather than shorten them.

Bruce Kremming of Albion, a survivor, is worried about the long-term prospects for American family farmers. He's not a crybaby. But the 1998 weather, the slumping world economy, imports and domestic lawmaking trouble him. As if the apple glut from Washington State and China were not enough, hail last summer destroyed large numbers of Western New York apples, including significant amounts of Kreming's 175-acre orchard.

Hogs, his other major enterprise, are another 1998-99 loser. "Everybody, even the multithousand-sow hog factories, is losing money now. There's an oversupply. Our break-even price is 35 cents a pound. A short time ago, we were getting 10 cents and the current price, nearly 25 cents, still falls short. I don't know how or when things will improve."

Meanwhile, despite large federal pork purchases, many small hog farmers have quit the industry, shoved out by the corporate hog factories. Although New Yorkers daily consume carloads of pork products -- ham, bacon, chops, roasts and sausage -- its farmers in 1998 raised 99,000 hogs, a one-year drop of 27 percent, and a 32 percent free fall from the five-year average. New York's pig production was a tiny part of the 105 million hogs raised nationally, says the state Agriculture Statistics Service.

Crowning his own farm's problems, Kremming, a New York Farm Bureau director, sits on the American Farm Bureau's committee that is trying to make sure that the Environmental Protection Agency, acting under the Food Quality Protection Act, doesn't saddle farmers with more costs and labor by unnecessarily banning certain pesticides needed to produce food economically.

By contrast, milk prices at the farm and in retail outlets continue to rise. Farmers will get $19.64 a hundredweight in February, or 42.2 cents a quart, for Class I (drinking) milk, a penny more than the January price and nearly 3 cents a quart above December's wholesale price. Cheese and butter prices also will remain high. The 1998 statistics show milk production increases in all 12 months, uniform price rises every month in double digits up to 27 percent. One consequence was a drop in drinking milk buying as retail prices soared in one year from as little as 89 cents per half-gallon to the current $1.39 level.

High market prices have sidelined Northeast Dairy Compact safety-net pricing. New York is awaiting congressional approval to join with New Jersey and Maryland the six-state New England Compact. Its governing body has put off until May consideration on proposed supply-management and income-distribution changes that would favor small farms. New York dairy farmers long have opposed supply management and two-tier pricing.

Fresh market growers and consumers, too, can learn commodity prices, a service New York sadly discontinued, by reaching the U.S. Department of Agriculture price home page via their computers. Access the USDA home page, at www.ams.usda.gov, and go on from there, says Chuck Bornt, cooperative extension agent. The advice was among the practical tips growers heard at the midmonth Lake Plains Vegetable School at Batavia, according to Erie County's Mike Orfanedes. Another was the increasing use improve trickle irrigation systems to cope with erratic weather and assure crop uniformity.

Barnyard gossip: As a marketing stimulant, Western New York vegetable growers are studying the idea of developing a regional label for their crops. . . . Orders for evergreen and deciduous trees, bushes and wildlife packets for spring delivery are now being accepted by the Soil & Water Conservation Districts of Erie County, East Aurora, Cattaraugus County, Ellicottville and Lockport. . . . A California molecular biologist is working to exploit the "master switch" he previously identified that activates freeze-protecting proteins in fruit trees and vegetables.

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