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Beleaguered cattle farmers prepare to weather another blow

(Saturday, Dec. 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Sarah Kershaw, NY Tims, 12/25/03: MABTON, Wash. - Not much can faze the men who raise dairy and beef cows here in the heart of Washington's cattle country. Even the news that a Holstein right here in Mabton appeared to have come down with mad cow disease - the first such case in the United States - was chewed over in bars and living rooms with a certain nonchalance.

Certainly, this development was disturbing to the dairymen who make their living raising cows. It was unnerving, a black eye on the beef industry, farmers said, and it seemed to come out of nowhere. Yet to many of the ranchers and farmers here, only recently rebounding from huge losses in the last decade, it was also more of the same. In the words of Doyle Kelley, a grape grower, "It's just another punch in the nose."

Gordon Hansen, owner of a small dairy farm here, said: "I don't get excited. After about two weeks, everyone will forget about this and we'll start eating beef again." But, he added, the farmers will suffer.

Still, virtually everyone in this town of 2,000, which is tucked in the Yakima Valley, was talking on Wednesday about the sick cow; telephones were ringing constantly and the whispering was nonstop about who might have owned the heifer. There were deep worries about devastation in the beef market.

The news has flooded this town with reporters from across the country and the world - and rumors were flying all day Wednesday. Each fresh tidbit - was the mad cow over at Art's place? Was the culprit at the Hidden Valley Dairy? - sent a throng of camera crews rushing to a new ranch to confront police officers standing guard. A half dozen or so farmers in the Mabton area denied, sometimes vehemently, that this now-famous dead cow ever grazed in their pastures.

Reporters swarmed to the Sunny Dene Ranch after a news report that it was the source of the infected cow, but men in pickup trucks and the local sheriff shooed them off the property without commenting. A telephone call placed to the house was not returned.

Even as farmers kept quiet, some townspeople expressed fear that the local ranchers, buoyed by the recent rise of beef prices after years of decline in beef and milk prices, would be devastated by foreign countries banning American beef and American consumers shunning it.

"We have a lot of agriculture, and a lot of the agriculture has been beaten down pretty good anyway," said Mike Chester, owner of the Silver Dollar Tavern, a local farmers' haunt in a town with only a handful of businesses. "This sure ain't going to help it."

And as matter-of-fact as many of the farmers here were, saying they believed that the diseased cow was an isolated case, industry experts said they expected significant economic fallout in Yakima County and nationally.

The county has the largest number of cattle in Washington, and with a decline in the price of hops, a huge crop here, dairy is a growing part of the agricultural economy. Dairy farmers often sell older cows to slaughterhouses.

A drop in beef prices could upset the already fragile economic prospects of dairy farmers, who are struggling with low milk prices, farmers said.

Melanie Geertsma, whose family has owned a dairy in Mabton for seven years, was watching coverage of the mad cow case on the "Today" show when her telephone rang.

"That's just it, we don't know anything," she explained to her sister on the other end.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/25/national/25FARM.html?ex=1073388325&ei=1&en=e5a88cc9586a1d6d