Logan » Farmers in Utah and Idaho on Saturday donated care packages to 350 Army Reservists serving in Iraq, despite their own economic hardships and the U.S. military awarding a dairy contract to an overseas firm.
Two truckloads of packages, each filled with seven cartons of milk, cookies and other goodies, are going to soldiers from the Fort Douglas-based 96th Sustainment Brigade that left in July for a one-year tour of duty in Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad. The logistics unit is charged with supplying U.S. forces with food, water, ammunition, fuel and other necessities while helping to organize the orderly exit of more than 130,000 military members and tens of thousands of civilian contractors.
The donations were made in the name of Dolores Gossner Wheeler, president of the Logan-based Gossner Foods, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of ultra-high-temperature milk (UHT), which needs no refrigeration.
On Saturday, Wheeler was honored during a picnic at the company plant for the $2.5 million in bonuses Gossner Foods gave its producers at a time when the wholesale price of milk is at a 30-year low. Thousands of farmers nationwide have been forced to borrow to keep running -- burning up the equity in their land, animals and equipment.
"We were wondering how we were going to meet payroll, when our bonus check came in the mail. I couldn't believe it, but the amount just about covered our payroll for the month," said Lewiston dairyman Jackson Smith, who, like many northern Utah farmers, also had to contend with ruinous June rains that destroyed his first alfalfa crop.
"The bonuses came at an emotional time because we're all struggling," said Steve Bann, a dairy farmer from Preston, Idaho. "When the check came, my wife cried."
More than 80 farmers and milk haulers donated $6,200 for the 350 care packages that will go to the Army Reservists. Gossner Foods gave another $2,600.
Each package has a letter saying the gift was made possible by Gossner Foods awarding bonuses to farmers "to help keep us in business. ... Please accept it as a small token of our appreciation of the sacrifice you are making so that we may enjoy the freedoms of living in the United States."
Wheeler called the farmers and employees at Gossner Foods "one big family. It's sad, though, that people don't understand what farmers are going through right now. They need help."
Gossner Foods holds a military contract to supply UHT milk to U.S. troops stationed all over the world -- except for the Persian Gulf. That contract was awarded to the Kuwaiti-based Public Warehousing, under federal law that permits the U.S. military to buy non-American products in combat zones.
Several farmers asked members of Congress to pressure the military to consider Gossner Foods as the dairy supplier for GIs serving in the Middle East. But the farmers' two staunchest supporters, Republican Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, became embroiled in personal scandals. Craig, arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men's restroom, did not run for reelection in 2008. And Vitter was identified as a client in a prostitution service.
Although the bid effort stalled, the military did take some action.
In 2007, the Army administered an unusual taste test to about 30 soldiers in a Kuwaiti mess hall. Samples were from the Bahrain-based Awal Dairy, which uses reconstituted powered milk for its UHT product supplied to U.S. forces, and from Gossner, which uses fresh milk in its pasteurization process.
The Army claimed that most soldiers preferred the Awal milk. But the results were questioned by Utah State University professor Don McMahon, who cited the Army's lack of information on survey controls and that most participants were not milk drinkers.