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Dairyman wants to send milk to Middle East

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PRESTON, Idaho — Steve Cann, a determined northern Cache Valley dairyman, is waging a sort of war against the U.S. military: He wants the milk he and other Idaho and Utah dairies produce to be available to soldiers and other military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cann's son Benjamin was an Army medic for the 327th Infantry Battalion and served two tours of duty in Iraq.

"If my son is good enough to go to Iraq, shouldn't my milk be good enough to go also?" Cann asked.

Cann, a Fallon, Nev., native, came to Idaho's Franklin County, just north of the Utah-Idaho border, in 1990. He was herdsman for an area dairy beginning in 1998. Three years ago he bought his own dairy. From early on he contracted with nearby Gossner Foods, in Logan to buy his milk.

Dolores Wheeler, the current president of the dairy company and daughter of founder Edwin Gossner, "picked us up, even though she didn't have to. She does a lot for the farmers she contracts with. If we could get the U.S. military to buy Gossners milk, it would be a boon to Gossners and also this area," Cann said.

"Every dollar spent in this community will be spent seven more times. Think about that," Cann said, referring to what is called the economic "multiplier effect."

The Cache Valley company, best known for its cheeses, buys about 45 percent of its milk from small dairies in southern Idaho and northern Utah, said Kelly Luthi, Gossner Foods' general manger.

In 1982, Edwin Gossner began working on producing a fluid milk product that utilized ultra-high temperature, or UHT, packaging technology.

The company, headquartered in Logan, has a sister plant in Burley, Idaho. Gossner Foods decided to pursue the UHT shelf-stable milk market instead of Grade A milk, allowing the firm to open up new marketing avenues. Gossner UHT Milk can be kept unrefrigerated at room temperature for months — an asset to the military community.

Today, Gossner milk is sold on military bases in Puerto Rico, Panama and as far away as Korea, where milk supplies and refrigeration is limited.

Although the product is used on some military installations, it is not available in Iraq to the 137,709 active-duty soldiers and 23,000 military-support personnel there, or in Afghanistan, which has nearly 21,000 active military personnel and 5,667 members of the National Guard and the Reserves.

Most of the milk consumed by Americans in the Middle East is reconstituted or powdered, coming out of Kuwait, and some from a dairy in Bahrain as well.

The Defense Department says it performed a taste test, and the results showed the milk from the Saudi peninsula was preferred by the test panel, which included fewer than 30 people. The department also questioned the $2 million annual cost to ship the boxed American milk to the Middle East.

Cann dogged and pulled the ear of every government official and agency he could think of by letter and by phone, trying to get some action.

"Some of them acted like I didn't have the right to question them about anything. One of them told me I was rude. ... They should be working for us, and if they don't, we shouldn't re-elect them," Cann said.

In Washington, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana took up the cause and asked the Defense Department to do a more comprehensive test. They claimed the test with such a small focus group couldn't speak for the nearly 190,000 Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Included in their letter was a reference to a conference sponsored by the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia in July 2006, where producers of U.S. goods and services were recruited to participate in a conference themed "To Strengthen the Domestic Industrial Base for U.S. Military Suppliers."

Their request was rejected.

Shortly after the senators started to get involved in the milk matter, Craig's credibility suffered as a result of the toe-tapping incident and his arrest in a Minnesota airport. Vitter's credibility suffered when suddenly the senator was listed on the rolls of a Louisiana brothel.

"Those two people were the only two that took up our cause; both got their wings clipped, and both are good men," Cann said. "I couldn't care less about the sexuality."

Despite the results of the taste test, soldiers' families are buying the Gossner product and sending it overseas at their own expense, some at the request of soldiers serving there.

"People are buying cases of our milk rejected by the military taste testers and sending it to soldiers in the Middle East because they don't like the Saudi milk they are being served," Luthi said.

Luthi has letters and cards from soldiers thanking them for the milk and telling them how much better the Cache Valley product is than the reconstituted milk they are being served by the military.

"Before the Iraq war, or whatever they call it, started, we were sending the military about four truckloads a week. Since then we have been sending them two trucks a week. If we could get the contract to the Middle East, we would be sending eight to 10 truckloads a week," Luthi said.

If they had a reason other than the taste test and shipping cost, we could accept it. If they thought they needed to procure Saudi milk because it was building good relations, we could accept that. But failing a taste test?"

Despite his setbacks, Cann — for the most part acting alone — continues to push to get someone to recognize his cause, to get Cache Valley milk to people fighting half a world away.

"I want the best milk sent to Iraq, don't you? Buy American! That's what its all about," Cann said.