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The Rebel Cow Farmer
Greg Niewendorp was a passing blip on the TV news last week, but it's
a blip that will likely balloon. Niewendorp has started a needed
conversation about the industrialization of our food supply, and the
liberties of people—both farmers and consumers—who don't want to be
part of it.
Last week, in an act of civil disobedience, Niewendorp forced the
Michigan Department of Agriculture to obtain a search warrant before
coming onto his farm to put radio frequency ID chips on his cattle
and to test his cattle for bovine tuberculosis.
SHERIFF RIDES INTO
The scene was peaceful. Charlevoix County Sheriff George Lasater read
the search warrant while Niewendorp and 10 supporters stood and
listened on an unusually hot fall morning. Niewendorp's supporters,
including one woman who worked on a TB project in
Nepal years ago,
peppered the key state official, Bridget Patrick, with questions
about the $10 million bovine TB eradication program. After about 30
minutes of this, the two techs and the state veterinarian hiked the
hills of 160 acres of pastureland to find, catch, and do the skin
test on the cattle. It took them the entire day.
Niewendorp lives in the middle of a very quiet nowhere in
Jordan, raising about 20 herd of dairy and beef cattle and one hog.
He rotates his cows on 40 different pastures, riding his horse and
using a herd dog. In winter, the cows eat hay. Like a lot of small-
scale farmers, he slaughters the cows himself and "gives" to friends
His homestead is reminiscent of the kids' tale of Old MacDonald's
farm - and starkly contrasts with the
Kansas feedlots of 38,000 head
of confined cattle. It wasn't lost on anyone standing at Niewendorp's
farm that the nation just suffered its second largest recall of meat
in history—more than 21 million pounds of frozen hamburger patties
suspected of E. coli bacteria contamination —a byproduct of feedlot
cows forced to stand in their own manure for months on end.
Niewendorp's own farm began as a political rebirth. A fifth
generation farmer, Niewendorp, 54, grew up on an
Iowa farm and saw
his father play by the rules in the 1960s, employing "modern
management techniques." His dad amped up his beef herd and each year,
confined the animals, and tried to "manage" the pools of liquid
manure, which created a penetrating stench on the farm. But "bigger"
meant broker, and the family farm went belly-up.
There is no stench on Niewendorp's farm because the cattle are not
confined. Niewendorp said the factory farm system heightens the risk
of disease, which has led to the birth of the National Animal
Identification System (NAIS). Its goal is to track every animal from
birth to death, and all the movements in between, with the radio
frequency IDs that look like white buttons. Supporters say that
tagging animals with a 15-digit ID will make the food supply safer.
The USDA aims to register all meat producers by
January of 2009.
The idea of the NAIS—voluntary in most states—is to quickly identify
the source of an infected animal and to protect citizens from
terrorists who contaminate the food supply. Farmers will have to log
in every "event" of an animal's life, such as going to a fair,
trucking them to another farm, or participating in a rodeo. Not just
cattle, but also pet ponies, 4-H animals, and backyard chickens (not
fish, though). Scanners at the slaughter house read the chips, much
like a grocery store wand reads the price of milk.
Niewendorp said small farmers can scarcely afford the burden of
logging and reporting every event of every animal's life.
The state switched to the RFIDs in March, but was already tracking
cattle with metal tags. Niewendorp believes they are using the bovine
TB issue as a guise to comply with the NAIS, although state officials
say it's simply quicker, with less room for error.
"These tags make me part of the system, and I have never agreed to
that," he said.
David Gumpert, a writer for Businessweek. com with the blog,
thecompletepatient. com, has followed Niewendorp's story since last
winter. He calls his actions "a rebellion of the factory food system."
"This all ties into nutritional freedom and the growing resentment
and suspicion of our country's whole food supply. A bigger issue than
NAIS and raw milk and bovine TB is the integrity of the food system.
What you're seeing is the reaction of increasing numbers of people
buying local. What Greg really does is sell directly to local
consumers. Unfortunately, the state's view will take away the
individual's right to self-police, and to knowingly buy meat from
cattle that hasn't been tested for bovine TB or injected with
antibiotics or hormones, precisely because that meat is clean."
TEST OR CONSEQUENCES
On the other side of this issue is Bridget Patrick, the bovine TB
eradication project coordinator from the Michigan Department of
Community Health and liaison MDA.
She believes that Niewendorp has a right to his opinion, but says
it's a straightforward issue: the state simply wants to protect the
public from the risk of contracting bovine tuberculosis, and to stop
its spread from wild deer herds to domestic cattle. The test is free,
she said, and Niewendorp owes his customers the assurance of safe
meat. (As a note, all commercial cattle have been federally inspected
for TB at slaughter facilities since 1959; no one, to Patrick's
knowledge, has been sickened by eating a TB cow.)
"The thing is, we have to test for TB because it is in the deer
herds, and if we don't find it in the cattle, it can go from cattle
to healthy deer. So although this person doesn't want to participate
in the testing program, he's jeopardizing the cattle farms and the
deer herd," Patrick said.
There's a real fear that bovine TB has spread from the northeast part
of the state to
Antrim and Emmet counties. Yet the devil is in the
details. One wild deer tested positive in 1999 in Antrim County.
Neither cattle nor deer have tested positive in Charlevoix County
where Niewendorp lives. Two cattle tested positive in neighboring
Emmet County, but that was five years ago. Two cattle tested positive
in farms somewhat near Niewendorp's farm, but were imported from
different parts of the state. The only animal to definitively
contract TB in the area was a dairy cow, which tested positive in May
of 2006, but it was 15 miles from Niewendorp's ranch (the range of a
wild deer is seven miles). Extensive testing of wild deer turned up
When pressed at last week's event, Patrick said this: "If we don't
test, our farmers would lose their ability to market their cattle. It
would impact the entire country."
And her point is valid. The USDA can impose heavy consequences on
Michigan farmers if the state does not meet its testing requirements.
Michigan lost its TB-free status, farmers have sold meat as
Wisconsin farmers stopped buying the state's live cattle.
Since testing began a decade ago, the numbers of one or more cows
testing positive in a herd have dropped from a high of eight herd in
2001 to four last year. Only one cow tested positive this year so far.
Wild deer tell a different story. It peaked at 78 in 1998, with
numbers bouncing generally down. A total of 41 deer tested positive
in 2006, about twice the number of 2005, and they continue to heavily
cluster in the Alpena area, home to exclusive hunt clubs of the rich
and powerful (see sidebar).
ONE COW, TRIPLE THE HASSLE
If a single cow is diagnosed with TB, the entire herd
is "depopulated" as Patrick would say. The reasoning: the bacterium
is very slow growing. Infected cows might test negatively, yet spread
it to deer who are nuzzling them through the fence. Producers receive
fair-market value, the testing is TB free, so Patrick is wondering
why Niewendorp is complaining.
Patrick's words sound soothing. But Niewendorp's act of civil
disobedience has prompted farmers to speak up.
There is Doug Kirkpatrick, a farmer outside of Alpena, who had his 50
cattle and 10 pigs "depopulated" after a single cow was diagnosed
with TB. The herd was condemned a year ago, but the USDA took months
to remove. Kirkpatrick told the
Petoskey News Review that he spent
$6,000 to feed animals considered already dead. The state also killed
231 cattle owned by Kendall Sumerix of Alpena because a cow he bought
Montana tested positive. The MDA went even further and destroyed
another 26 cattle of his brother-in-law, Kim Sumerix, in June of
"Because we bought 13 of the
Montana cows from Kendall two and a half
years before they ever found the reactor cow in Kendall's herd," said
Neva Sumerix, who is married to Kim. "But our cattle never tested
positive. We were blown away. They told us we had to destroy any
relation to his cow because of the possibility of exposure. There was
also an issue of what to do with the 13 calves, but my husband and I
both work full-time and we didn't have the time to bottle feed the
calves, so we said, take them too. We tried to get along. If we
didn't, our herd would have been quarantined and we wouldn't have
been able to sell our cattle to make payments on the farm. It doesn't
make any sense."
The MDA says it gives market value for the cows that
are "depopulated, " but Sumerix said she had to pay more money for the
11 new cattle than the total she received for the 26 killed. The
farmer can't restock the farm until the last exposed cow leaves the
premises, and then it's another several months to disinfect the farm.
That's time the farmer loses to make money.
Kim Korthase, who lives 10 miles from Niewendorp, said after a steer
tested positive, it took "months and months" for the USDA to remove
the 259 cattle.
"They found one deer in Antrim County in 1999. Are we going to kill
everything for one deer? They have to treat each area for the actual
risk. I say, get rid of the deer in the (Alpena area) and let the
deer herd come back healthy."
A BETTER WAY?
Whole herd testing began in Charlevoix County after the MDA declared
Antrim County as a "high risk" area in a July 2003 memo. Niewendorp
went along and allowed his herd to be tested for TB, but he began
researching the disease, believing there was a better way. He
discovered that bovine TB bacteria thrives in high-acid, high-iron
soil that's common in Northern
Michigan. The iron percolates into the
water and into grass and herbs, which are eaten by deer and cattle.
With high iron levels, the deer and cattle are more susceptible to
the invasion of bovine TB. Bait piles also throw off the deers'
natural diet and drive up iron levels. Medical studies show that TB
bacteria thrives when a host has high iron supplies. Niewendorp gives
his own herd calcium-enriched water, which helps keep iron levels
normal for very little money.
He also came across a 1997
Michigan State University study of M.
paratuberculosis, in which Michigan farmers were asked to apply lime
to pastures as a protective measure. This particular bacteria causes
Johne's Disease. It is a mycobacterium, the same as bovine TB, but
not a strain of bovine tuberculosis. In that study, researchers saw a
ten-fold reduction in odds of herd infection in pastures applied with
Dr. John Kaneene, a study author and an
MSU professor of
epidemiology, said he believes it would be a good idea to conduct a
similar study with the bovine TB bacterium. One reason is that three
Michigan farms found with infected cattle were re-infected, despite
attempts to disinfect the grounds.
"The question is, why? Obviously there are many, many reasons. Maybe
the farmers don't do what we recommend—disinfecti ng and cleaning
their farm before bringing in new animals. But the one key question
is, are we destroying the organism from the environment from the
After hearing of Niewendorp's approach of reducing iron levels of the
cattle with calcium supplements, Kaneene agreed that it might serve
as an experimental approach. The only caveat was getting permission
to expose healthy animals with a dangerous bacteria.
Along the way, Niewendorp has collected an odd mix of bedfellows—
organic food activists such as author Stephanie Mills; stay-off-my-
land property rights activists in
Antrim and Charlevoix counties; and
Amish farmers who feel the same way as Niewendorp about getting their
animals tagged. The Amish oppose the tags because of a prophesy in
the Bible's Book of Revelation, which says the "beast" forced
everyone to "receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so
that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark." In this case,
the computer that scans the ear tags would be the beast.
Niewendorp also had long talks with Ted Beals, a pathologist who
taught at the
University of Michigan Medical School for 31 years.
Beals' own research showed that it is extremely rare for a person to
contract bovine TB in this country with current safeguards (although
some elderly may harbor the bacteria from earlier days).
In fact, since the big TB scare ten years ago, the MDA has identified
only two people with the specific strain of bovine TB. One was a
hunter who was dressing a deer in Alpena County. He cut into a TB
nodule and the bacteria seeped into a cut in his hand. The cut was
badly infected and it took nine months to heal with the help of
antibiotics, Patrick said.
The other was an elderly man, who died of other causes shortly after
the bacteria was discovered in a medical workup. No one knows how and
when he got TB.
The chances of contracting bovine TB by eating meat is so remarkably
low, it's almost impossible, Beals said.
"The animal would have to be very, very sick, and you'd have to eat
an infected part of that animal. If the animal had active TB, it
would be very obvious to the farmer it was very sick. It's unlikely
that the animal would get past an inspector, and if it did, you'd
have to eat the part of the animal that's actively infected (the
lungs, stomach or lymph nodes), and that's even less likely."
How about drinking milk from a TB cow?
Possible, but again, highly unlikely. "I am unaware of any documented
cases in which a human became infected with bovine tuberculosis by
drinking milk that contained the bacteria. It may be technically
possible for the bacteria to be present in milk (in those countries
with lots of infected and sick cows) and technically possible for a
human to drink that milk and have bovine tuberculosis in the
intestine, but I do not believe that it has ever been documented. And
that is not even conceivable in a country were bovine tuberculosis is
seen only rarely in cows, and sick cows are not being milked," Beals
The bovine TB eradication program in 1996 cost several hundred
thousand dollars. Now it tops $10 million.
Niewendorp said that one reason he refused testing last year, and
again this year, was that the program is an "extravagant waste of
money." A state law says testing must stop if there's no positive
finding within three years in a "high risk" area (Patrick said
Charlevoix County is not "high risk"). He contends that the state has
not refined or pared down the program and that's because it would
lose $5 million in federal matching grants.
Meanwhile, many hunters are still using bait piles because it hasn't
affected them. Only one deer has actually been found dead of TB,
perhaps because critters eat the weak and infected deer, or the deer
are shot before getting sick. Whatever the reason, herd numbers are
Beals supports common sense herd management, but said that testing
Niewendorp's herd is unreasonable.
"He is a very good farmer and he knows his animals very well, unlike
some situations. There are some big factory farms, where the actual
owner may never see the animals. He's not like that. He knows their
health. If any are sick, he knows about it. They are his equity. He's
extraordinarily careful when milking his animals to avoid
But wouldn't examination on a farm-by-farm basis be too difficult?
"The inspectors do know Greg personally and they know all the farmers
personally – I don't buy that argument. You need to do something
wrong before you're arrested or issued a ticket. We expect from our
civil servants a fairly high degree of judgment.
Author Stephanie Mills agreed that the state must act in a measured
way or risk bankrupting small farmers.
"I must tell you that having consumed beef and milk and cream from
Greg's animals, I discovered what those things really taste like. I
did so knowingly. We weigh the risks of the vanishingly small
possibility of getting TB from these grass-fed critters against the
risks of getting something worse from poorly inspected slaughterhouse
beef that's been re-reddened by exposure to carbon monoxide to keep
it salable on the shelf, or encountering hormones in milk that's come
from scores of big dairies to be processed and mixed. I can imagine
there being small farmers who are real slobs and who try to get away
with shabby practices and sick herds, and I wouldn't knowingly trade
with them. But I know Greg and I know his standards."
So how did the TB skin tests come out? Two of Niewendorp's young
calves tested positive, meaning they could have avian TB, which is
harmless to cattle, or bovine TB. It also could be a false positive.
A blood test will provide answers
on Tuesday. Stay tuned.
Is The Feeding "Ban" a Farce?
By Anne Stanton
Back in 1994, there came a troubling sign that
Michigan was no longer
free of bovine tuberculosis. An infected deer was found on the
grounds of the ritzy
Turtle Lake Club, a 23,000-acre deer hunting
club that's home to 19 multi-millionaire members and cottage mansions.
The 1994 discovery led to the state's effort to eradicate bovine TB
both from cattle and deer. But one farmer in the "hot zone"
surrounding Alpena County said the state won't win the war until it
stops going easy on the powerful hunt clubs.
If you've never heard of the
Turtle Lake Club, an
article describes life on the other side:
Turtle Lake are taken to their blinds in horse-drawn
wagons. The deer are driven to the hunters by locals who walk through
the woods squeezing rubber bulbs on horns like those used in antique
cars," * wrote Eric Sharp in the September 2007 article.
State officials realized that deer eating and breathing together at
bait piles triggered the bovine TB problem. That led to limiting bait
to two gallons per hunt site; it must be spread out, not piled.
But farmer Kendall Sumerix, also a biochemist, said enforcement of
that rule is a farce. The number of bovine TB deer found in 2006 was
about double that of 2005. That's because the state became lax, he
"Stores are selling sugar beets in bulk again; they haven't done that
in five or six years. They're advertising again and they're selling
the stuff by pick-up loads," said Sumerix.
Sumerix suggested increasing the current fine of bait pile violations
from $100 (it was originally a wrist-slapping $25) to a $500 fine.
Maybe half the fine could reward the one who reports it, he said.
Sumerix said the state won't get tough on bait piles or force a
thinning of the infected herd because it would mean mixing it up with
the rich and powerful.
"If it involved unimportant people such as us, they'd take out all
the deer," Sumerix says. "But look who hunts there - Governor John
Engler. They (the hunt clubs) give politicians free perks and free
hunting trips. I'm a Republican, and I think it's disgusting. It's
all politics, there's nothing scientific about this program."
One study shows an outright ban on bait piles would be effective. An
extensive MSU study completed in 2001 showed that any amount of bait
can be expected to "sustain and spread a disease like bovine TB, but
smaller quantities tended to be even worse than the large ones."
A Danish study gives another compelling reason to eliminate bait
piles. Wild deer, in winter, eat moss containing usnic acid, a
natural antibiotic for TB. Captive deer won't eat it because they
aren't hungry enough, Sumerix said.
DNR wildlife biologists for years have told the Natural Resources
Commission that bait piles help spread the disease, but the NRC has
repeatedly blocked an outright ban, said outdoor writer Bob Butz.
Keith Charters, who heads the NRC, is a long-time friend of former
Governor John Engler. A ban on baiting piles would drastically reduce
deer numbers and make it much harder to snag a deer.
DNR biologists in the field have told Sumerix that it would be best
to drastically thin the infected herds, and let the herd rebuild with
a healthy stock. Those in the DNR's higher echelons say they can't do
that on private land—not even when the deer are fenced in. But that's
exactly what they're doing with cattle herds on private land when
they find just one infected animal, Sumerix said, whose herd
was "depopulated" last year.
Is it possible to skin test deer?
No, because the stress would kill them, said Bridget Patrick, bovine
TB eradication project coordinator. DNR biologists observe captive
deer herds periodically. The DNR is also field testing a blood test
that provides an instant result, said DNR spokeswoman Mary Dettloff.
If the state doesn't get serious about bait piles, bovine TB will
continue to seep to other areas of the state, Sumerix fears. The deer
are like firewood: hunters kill them, take them downstate, butcher
them, and often throw the bone into the bushes. Small animals could
eat the guts and spread TB to cattle and deer. The DNR doesn't
believe that small animals can transmit the infection, but many
Sumerix is more than a little concerned. "It's spreading now! How
long are they going to wait?"
Dettloff said that while the incidence of bovine TB spiked in 2006,
the state is much better off than it was 12 years ago. "In 2006, the
prevalance rate for Bovine TB (in the hot zone), was 2.3 percent. In
1995, it was at 4.9 percent. Eradication efforts are working."
Tom Cuorchaine, who heads up enforcement, said the department has
written 150 citations in the core area and conducted 100 flight
patrols since 2004. It plans to step up enforcement this fall.
"I know we haven't made progress in the last year or two, but it's
not because we haven't been trying. It goes back to public support—
the people who own the property, the people who hunt deer, and the
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