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Income, Milk Go Down the Drain : Dairy Farmers' Lives Poisoned by Tainted Feed

November 02, 1986|SCOTT CHARTON | Associated Press

LINCOLN, Ark. — At sunrise on Dwight Baugh's farm in the Ozark Mountains, the chug of the milking machines blends with the chirping of crickets into a sound sort of like a car stuck in neutral.

The comparison isn't lost on Baugh, a second-generation farmer whose dairy, like 77 others in three states, is under government quarantine because of contamination with the pesticide heptachlor.

The quarantine means the milk cannot be sold.

"Our milk's just going down the drain," Baugh, 53, said as he watched the morning's raw milk gush into yellowed five-gallon jugs for disposal.

"We're just making a corn-bread living," he added, taking a crumpled pack of cigarettes from a pocket of his bib overalls. "It's been tough."

Affected farmers in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma have received nearly $2 million in compensation under the federal Dairy Indemnity Program, but they have no idea how long it will take to purge their cows of the heptachlor residue. The pesticide, which is suspected of causing cancer, was banned from general use by the Food and Drug Administration in 1983.

Feed Tainted

Authorities say that heptachlor-treated seed grain--dyed red as a warning against other uses--was used by J. E. W. Inc. to make gasohol at Van Buren, Ark., and that a co-owned company, Valley Feeds Inc., later sold a mash byproduct from the process as livestock feed.

Federal officials say they're not certain how long the contaminated feed might have been in distribution, because sales records are incomplete. Representatives of the Van Buren companies, shut down by a federal court since March, say they didn't know the feed contained heptachlor.

U.S. Atty. Mike Fitzhugh, of Fort Smith, said an investigation of the Van Buren mill's operations is almost finished, but no charges have been filed. Eddie Christian of Fort Smith, attorney for Valley Feeds, said his clients will not comment until the investigation is complete.

Baugh's 156 Holstein cows were among the 140 dairy herds quarantined last February. By March, dairy products suspected of heptachlor contamination had been removed from store shelves in eight states, and breast-feeding mothers were warned not to consume dairy products.

By late summer, officials said, 51 dairy farms and 27 beef and pork operations were still prohibited from selling milk or meat.

Scientists say that the heptachlor settles in the fat cells of animals and humans, and milk from contaminated cows should not be used until the heptachlor level falls below the FDA limit of 0.1 parts per million.

The last batch of milk Baugh tested showed 0.2 ppm.

After the quarantine was imposed, Baugh took a $2,000-a-month job hauling milk from other farms around Lincoln to recover some of the lost income, and the family borrowed against savings to pay the interest on the mortgage. He said he feels some jealousy as he collects the marketable milk from neighbors along his route.

Baugh said the family owes its economic survival to interest-free loans from Mid-America Dairymen, a milk-marketing cooperative that has made $218,000 available to the quarantined farms.

Past Prosperity

Behind Baugh's white frame farmhouse are signs of past prosperity--late-model pickup trucks and a swimming pool complete with diving board. Baugh said the dairy was grossing about $15,000 a month before the quarantine, but now, "We've had to give up entertainment, because we can't afford it and don't have time for it."

His sons, Mike and Steve, awaken at 3 a.m. to herd the black-and-white cows through two rows of milking stations. The sleek animals are hooked to suction cups that channel their milk through hoses and pipes.

Baugh pats his favorite cow, Dolly, and said it saddens him that the 120 pounds of milk she gives each day must be dumped. "She works awful hard for us."

A dozen miles away in Westville, Okla., Tommy Murray, 31, rises early to milk about 100 quarantined cows before he starts his job at two livestock sale barns. He has five children and has been getting zero income from the farm.

Instead of dumping his herd's milk, he is feeding it to calves, and hopes the heptachlor will leave their systems over time. Murray's most recent milk test showed a heptachlor level of 0.6 ppm.

Walt Coleman estimates he has lost $1 million and incalculable customer confidence because his family-owned dairy, in business in Little Rock since 1862, has had to recall its products.

"During the time it was going on, the recall was very detrimental to the entire dairy industry, and it even affected others that didn't have any of the heptachlor products," Coleman said.

Coleman Dairy ran advertisements emphasizing its role as a trustworthy friend of consumers.

"It has taken a period of time for everyone to develop confidence again," Coleman said. "With the advertising we have done, the confidence is back, but we got a lot of products back that people were scared to eat even though we assured them it wasn't contaminated."

Baugh said he would drink the milk that his sons dump twice a day.

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