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Spilled Milk

December 14, 2009

If you believe in buying locally from small family farms, you should understand the knife edge farmers walk trying to stay in business.  My friend and long-time Green City Market vendor, Nick Kirch of Blue Marble Family Farm is shutting down, at least temporarily.  Partly because running such a business is stressful and he would prefer to just milk cows.  He needs a partner handling the business side of things.  And now Blue Marble has had a bottling problem and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) issued an expansive recall order on his milk.  I haven’t spoken directly with Nick about this yet, but my online reading comes to this:

The DATCP found some of his milk still carried a naturally occurring enzyme, an enzyme that some argue is good for you and one of the reasons raw milk advocates drink raw milk.  Unfortunately, DATCP uses this enzyme as an indicator that the milk was not pasteurized to their standards.  They found nothing harmful in the milk, just proof that it hadn’t been pasteurized fully.  Their broad and misleading recall means consumers may lose confidence in Nick and Blue Marble.

On the other side is Nick Kirch, a man of incredible integrity who went to the trouble and expense years ago of setting up his own bottling facility.  Rare for an operation his size, Nick did this to ensure his milk is processed properly and as little as possible so that the health benefits of his milk are not lost.  Raw milk is an incredibly healthy product and processing it kills and removes much of its nutritional value.  That is why our supermarket milk jugs are emblazoned with things like “vitamin X” added.  Artificial nutrients need to be re-introduced because they’ve been eliminated.

Whether  you’re a raw milk advocate or not, Nick was not selling raw milk.  He was working hard to sell the healthiest product he could.  He and his employees may well have made mistakes.  The “small farm” issue is (remember, you’re a small farm advocate, right?) that a single problem like this will put a small family farm out of business.  If a factory farm has a problem (and they do all the time…spinach…mad cow…) they simply pay their fines, clean up, get re-inspected and carry on because they have deep pockets and can ride it out.

Rather than listen to me talk, please read Nick’s words. He is a humble, soft-spoken man who came forward in a firestorm of negative talk on a blog and responded to people with this:

On a fall day, 1969, three young boys and their mother go for a walk to have a picnic under the big oak tree up on the hill in the cattle pasture. They had just come from the grocery store, so they had a lot of produce to pick through. You see, they drove around the back and picked up the food that was being discarded. They didn’t know that they were poor. They only knew that the old bananas mother could make into bread, the not so bad stuff they could eat, and the rotten stuff would get fed to the pigs.

As they stood under the massive tree, mother unfolded the red and white checkered table cloth, which made a beautiful contrast to the lush green pasture. She placed the wicker basket in the center of the table cloth and they all sat Indian style and began to divide up the very best of the produce. The children did not see fear, panic or worry. They only saw love as their mother handed out the fruit. “Oh look, you can see the capital”, she said as the children looked in amazement at the city, which looked so far away. “We may have to move to a different farm, boys”, mother said. “The owner wants to sell this land and your father and I cannot afford to buy it this close to the city”. We looked at each other confused, because to us, the city seemed a world away.

Forty years later in the fall of 2009, up on a hill on the edge of the city, there stands a might lone oak tree.  Next to it, a large building; the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

There is a sign dedicating the tree to a person I have never met. That person was never on any of the picnics or sleigh rides we went on, 40 years earlier. I don’t recall seeing him as we gathered the cows after school before the evening milking. Anyhow, the tree was dedicated to him.

In 1971, our family packed up and moved to a farm next to a small town we had never heard of, Barneveld. The school was not only but a few grades, but all the grades kindergarten through 12, were all in one building, all under one roof. Far different from the Madison school system we had come from. If we missed the bus, we had to run to school. “Only two miles as the crow flies”, father used to say. Problem was, we weren’t crows. We were young boys with short legs. Needless to say, we did not miss the bus very often.

I grew up and graduated high school and decided to farm with my father. After a few successful years, I figured it was time to purchase half the cattle and equipment in April 1984. June 8, 1984, our farm and the town of Barneveld were wiped out by a tornado. We saved what we could, buried what we couldn’t and rebuilt the rest. Sixteen years later with the farmer and the consumer getting further disconnected, along with the RBGH approval, mad cow disease, and genetically modified crops, I had an idea. What if the farmer and the consumer were to work together? (For the common good of both) I would bottle my own milk and sell directly to the consumer in glass bottles, as close to raw milk as possible.

Over the next five years, an idea became reality. Blue Marble was born, along with many ups and downs of starting a new business. In November 2009, at the edge of total burn out and a bunch of stress related health issues, I decided to scale back and stop bottling for a time to recharge and refocus.

When the inspector came out, Wednesday November 25, 2009, and told me that they had found a possible problem with one product on one date, I informed her that we were done bottling for a time. I asked if there was anything we needed to do about the milk in question. She stated that they tested all the products, only one, the whole milk dated 11-27-09, was in question. That if I was done bottling for an undetermined time, it would be best to voluntary surrender our license and there would be no more issues. When we opened up again, we would get re-inspected. Nothing was said about a recall/press release. Apparently, some other DATCP employees decided that they would do a press release without notifying me or the inspector that came to the farm. They did this totally out of fear, even though no bacteria or pathogens were found. To make things worse, they did this after hours, 6:30 p.m., Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. On top of that, they had the press release state all Blue Marble products dated 11-27-09 and after should be discarded. Remember, only one product whole milk; one dated 11-27-09 was there ever a question. I would have gladly recalled all the whole milk dated 11-27-09, it would have been less than 30 bottles total. Instead, they ruined the Blue Marble reputation because of fear.

We live in a fear based society, change is coming. We are becoming more aware of our connection to the Earth and each other. Join together, replace fear with harmony. Who am I trying to kid putting a pen to paper? I flunked tenth grade English – twice. I am just a simple farmer, naïve enough to believe in a dream, that I can make a difference.

What someone works years on can be destroyed in seconds. I learned this back in 1984, the year of the tornado.  Looks as though I will have to start to rebuild again.

Life is a journey…………Dream on.

I suppose that I should be grateful to DATCP because of their actions, my children may get to share the same experience that I had as a child – to forage through discarded produce looking for something edible. Maybe this spring, I’ll plant an acorn on a hill, not far from the city.

I hope that you can forgive me for any wrongs I have done.

God Bless,

Nick Kirch

Founder/Owner/Operator
Blue Marble Family Farm

That’s my friend, Nick Kirch.

If we as consumers are going to advocate for small family farms, it is important that we understand their struggles.  I’m not saying Blue Marble didn’t make a mistake.  They may have.  But we can’t let it ruin them.  If the mantra is Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, then I can tell you I am proud to know Nick Kirch.  He is an incredibly good man and I hope one day he’ll get back on his feet and sell me milk.  I would drink anything he puts in front of me.

My question to you is, How do we help and support small farms when they struggle against long arduous hours of work, large, uncaring government bureaucracy, and the deep pockets of big agriculture?  I would love your thoughts.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Reid permalink
    December 14, 2009 8:59 pm

    Hi Grant,
    Let’s find-out what the costs are to pay the fines, raise the funds (or, find him an investor) and help him re-open. I’m sure the restaurant community will rally around him. Everyone loves Blue Marble! It’s So darn tasty 🙂 It shouldn’t go away like this… we Have to help Nick & his family recover.

  2. December 15, 2009 1:19 am

    Grant, thanks for sharing this compelling story about Nick Kirch’s recent experience with state regulators and the politics of fear, as applied to our local food system. This is a heartbreaking example of how a disproportionate (and seemingly underhanded) response from regulatory authorities can have lasting adverse consequences for small businesses and artisan/farmstead food producers, in particular.

    As a food scientist, I understand and respect the paramount importance of ensuring consumer safety, especially now that our national, industrialized food system is so complex and convoluted that the provenance of any ingredient and the processing conditions in any given location are difficult to adequately verify and monitor, let alone implement corrective actions before widespread problems occur that may threaten the consuming public’s health and well-being (know of any recent food recalls that could have been avoided?). In this instance, measuring a naturally-occurring enzyme in milk (alkaline phosphatase, for those trivia buffs keeping score at home) as a presumptive test for the presence of pathogenic bacteria which may be present in raw (or under-pasteurized) milk, is appropriate and reliable. However, the presumption should be limited to the product(s) tested, not immediately extended to the entire processing facility and all of its products without additional confirmatory tests for the presence of potentially harmful bacteria.

    As an educator/knowledge broker and advocate for local food systems, I also understand that an unfortunate situation could have been avoided had DATCP used a simple, step-wise communication and learning process to address and resolve their concerns with Blue Marble Family Farms’ bottled whole milk. Although the inspector apparently informed Nick about the possible contamination issue, she should have discussed with him (in plain English) how, when and why he should implement the corrective action(s) in his bottling operation. Additionally, she should have described the follow-up procedures and process control checks that would ensure Blue Marble Family Farms can continue producing safe, wholesome bottled milk and other packaged dairy products. This would have been a proportionate response given the relatively small quantity of bottles (less than 30) that were distributed by Nick’s operation. Artisan producers of batch-quantity foods with limited distribution simply don’t require the same level of public alert and mass media alarm as mega-scale, multi-national food processors whose products reach a much larger number of consumers.

    Your post and Nick’s narrative suggests that little dialogue occurred between the regulatory officials and the operator before DATCP took punitive action (in a public forum, no less) under the guise of “Consumer Protection”. To the contrary, this is a situation in which everyone loses: 1) Nick loses business (and, understandably, his will to continue participating in the local food system), 2) DATCP loses credibility as regulatory authorities and 3) consumers like us lose the opportunity to support a local farm family by purchasing and consuming their dairy products.

    That outcome is entirely avoidable.

    Just as Nick may need “…a partner handling the business side of things…”, DATCP may need someone who actually understands the art, science and business of small-batch food production to help translate their regulations and best practices in ensuring food safety, as well as mediate corrective actions when they discover potential threats to public health in packaged food products. Perhaps this reveals an opportunity for an intermediary service… provided by someone with technical chops, business savvy, a sound understanding of food safety principles and a practical perspective on relative risk in minimally processed foods. An “Innocence Project” for the local/regional food system, if you will.

    I’m in.

    Who’s with me?

    • Jeff Reid permalink
      December 16, 2009 5:49 pm

      Sounds like your the right man for the job!

      send me an e-mail at luxuryicecream@sbcglobal.net

      I think there’s definite hope for this situation.

      talk to you soon.

      Jeff Reid

  3. December 18, 2009 8:10 pm

    I’m in. I would help put together an event that would raise money to keep the man in business. please call if you need my help!

  4. Debbie Reznick permalink
    December 29, 2009 10:27 pm

    So this is how I finally learned why Blue Marble Farm is no longer at the Green City Market. Their milk was the best most delicious wonderful milk I have ever tasted. It is the first and only milk I have ever wanted to drink plain. In fact, once I bought the chocolate milk from them (I LOVE chocolate) and I never bought it again because the plain milk was so delicious. I’d buy it at the market and open it and drink it from the bottle before i got to the car. Milk! Not sweets. Milk.

    I would be glad to help with a fundraiser, or in any other way that I can.

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