Fortifying Farms

Local farmers have have mixed views on a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ease regulations on large-scale dairy operations.

Right now farms with up to 200 cows are exempt from regulations requiring extra steps to prevent pollution from cow waste. Cuomo proposed raising the limit to 300 cows so farms in the state can expand without footing extra costs.

The Department of Environmental Conservation held public hearings on the proposal and accepted public comments through Jan. 22.

The Cuomo administration has said this measure will allow dairy operations in the state to expand without incurring extra costs that could make expansion impractical, and this will support the state’s growing Greek yogurt industry.

According to Associated Press reports, the number of yogurt plants in the state is now 29. That’s up from 14 in 2000.

Since Greek yogurt is thicker and creamier than other yogurts, it requires more milk in its production.

The state is home to the nation’s top two Greek yogurt companies: Fage in Johnstown and Chobani in central New York.

Fage is undergoing an expansion that will double its output and has introduced several new flavors recently.

On Friday, Cuomo’s administration also announced two new programs to help dairy farmers by increasing profitability and reducing energy costs.

The first doubles incentives for renewable bio-energy projects to reduce electricity costs. The second provides $450,000 for grants to help diary farmers

According to a news release, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority will double the maximum incentive amount from $1 million to up to $2 million per installation for farmers to install equipment on their farms that turns organic waste produced by cows into electricity.

The $450,000 Dairy Acceleration Program will provide grants and coordinate funding and technical programs to help farmers interested in expanding their operations or increasing their efficiency, according to a news release.

In August Cuomo held what was dubbed a “yogurt summit” in Albany.

“Last summer, we heard from stakeholders on how the state can help the dairy industry and yogurt producers grow and create jobs in New York,” Cuomo said in a news release. “As a result of our ongoing dialogue, the state is providing assistance to the industry through these two programs, which will help dairy farmers lower their energy costs and provide opportunities to help expand their production and efficiency. We want to make sure that the dairy and yogurt business stays and flourishes in New York.”

According to the Associated Press a dairy farmer in Ontario County at the summit said the regulations would cost her $2,400 per cow is she expanded past the 200 cow threshold for what is defined as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

The farmer said she’d have to build a new barn because her current one is too close to a stream to comply with the regulations, and she’d have to invest another $200,000 in better manure processing.

“Not only does this limit the growth of a small farm but as we have seen with the exciting boom of the yogurt industry in upstate New York, it also limits the availability of fresh local milk needed to meet the yogurt demand,” according to a news release form the New York Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau said even with raising the threshold, the state would still have the highest environmental standards in the country for dairy farmers, according to the news release.

The Business Council of New York State also supports the measure, adding that lessening the threshold would increase the state’s dairy farms in competitiveness with other states.

Several environmental groups oppose the proposal, saying that it would likely add 25,000 cows to the state’s dairy herd, resulting in more than 3 million additional pounds of urine and feces produced each day, according to an 80-page document by the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Earthjustice and several other groups.

They say the deregulation would be violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Most dairy farmers belong to a cooperative group, which picks up their milk, pools the supply and then distributes it. That supply can go anywhere, and often farmers don’t know where their milk ends up, said Montgomery County Farm Bureau President Martin Kelly.

Kelly said it’s likely much of the milk supplied to plants like Fage and Chobani is coming from out of state.

“A lot of their milk isn’t coming from New York farms – sure there’s a small portion that is, but a lot of it is coming from out of state,” Kelly said.

Neither company responded to inquiries in time for publication.

The dairy co-ops are sometimes national and sometimes regional on a state or smaller local level.

Local reaction

Kelly said the proposal to lessen the threshold sounds good on the surface, but he said he has several questions about the measure.

“At first glimpse, the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation proposal looks like a good plan, however, we need to know more about it and how it will affect farms that are already compliant,” Kelly said. “A lot of those farms on average have had to pay more than $150,000 to become compliant with the level already in place. They should be compensated or something for it.”

Kelly also said he’s concerned if there is a rapid increase in the amount of cows in the state, “What’s that going to do to supply and demand?”

“Is it going to drive prices down? When the average farm in New York state is 110 cows [according to the agriculture census] if we’re going to have mega farms out there, what is that going to do to the small family farms?” Kelly said.

He estimated Montgomery County’s average dairy farm is about the same size as the state average, and most if not all of them are family operations.

The regulations for CAFOs require farmers to have additional places to store manure. Farmers have to install more preventative measures in case of runoff. Kelly said many have to install leach fields. He said sometimes farmers have to buy additional land when they increase their herd as well – not to mention the extra cost of feed alone.

“I think most farms that are already CAFO compliant have some of the lowest contamination because they’re storing their manure in basically a huge septic tank. It’s spread during the winter on flat ground, so there isn’t runoff. In the spring, after the rains, it’s spread on the fields and plowed under,” Kelly said. “A farmer’s main mission is not only to produce milk, but to be good stewards of the land. If you deplete the land, you won’t be able to raise a good crop.”

Fulton County Farm Bureau President Stanley Korona said the chapter is scheduled to meet this week and the proposed changes will likely be discussed.

Korona, who has about 100 milking cows at his farm in Perth, said he thinks lessening the threshold will be good for farms looking to expand.

Korona has been a dairy farmer since 1953. He started with 10 cows.

He said many farms saw a 35 to 65 percent increase in feed bills from 2011 to 2012, which hit the industry hard in a time when the cost of milk is so low because of the market.

The increased feed bills were a result – in part – because of the corn shortage after devastating droughts in the midwest.

“With the price of milk low, the feed cost is barely offset by the cost of milk,” Korona said.

He said he didn’t think changing the threshold would have an impact on farms that are already compliant with CAFO regulations.

“In my opinion, I think some of the restrictions could be [eased.] Increasing the [threshold] from 200 to 300, it really doesn’t make that much of a difference [as far as environmental impact],” Korona said. “I wish they would go after emissions from cars that are running on our roads. I think there are more emissions coming out and polluting the air there than there are with animals on farms.”

Korona has held positions with his dairy marketing cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, in the northeast region, which encompasses several states. He said many companies try to get milk from nearby farms to decrease transportation costs, but all the milk in the co-op is pooled.

“They’re like my agent. A truck picks up the milk, and I don’t know what destination it’s going to,” he said.

Farmers are paid for their milk based on factors like butter-fat content and protein. When the milk is collected each day, a sample is taken and labeled with a corresponding barcode for the farm.