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April 20, 2014
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More farms, Gov. Cuomo, not bigger farms

Nate Wilson

The economy of upstate New York has been mired in malaise for several decades. This has been the economic bane of several previous governors and their administrations. It would be for Governor Andrew Cuomo, too, were it not for an unforeseen economic gift that has dropped into his lap.

This windfall?—new construction and major expansion of dozens of yogurt processing plants across upstate New York. Several of these plants have potentially massive production capacity. This trend has brought construction jobs, real estate sales, massive purchases of building materials, and eventually will produce several thousand additional good manufacturing jobs. All that will be lacking will be copious amounts of additional milk.

The reaction of the Cuomo Administration has been wholly predictable—wild enthusiasm, general cluelessness and somewhat sophomoric ideas as to what is feasible or appropriate. Last August, the governor hosted the first ever “New York State Yogurt Summit” in Albany. Attendance was tightly controlled; all major yogurt processors were in attendance and the governor’s office even courageously included three hand-picked token dairy farmers (holding the appropriate opinions, of course)—all this to give the illusion that the summit was some sort of all inclusive democratic process.

One issue that surfaced at the summit was the regulatory exemption limit of 200 cows per farm in the official definition of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, (CAFO). Any farm with over 200 cows has to undergo a prohibitively expensive environmental vetting process allowing it to operate above that threshold. Hearing this, the governor sprang into action. Leaving the summit room for a brief period, he returned triumphant to announce that he was going to amend the CAFO exemption to cover farms up to 300 cows. This made a dynamic “executive moment” for Cuomo (too bad he overlooked the fact that any decisions regarding CAFO regulations are not his to make but are under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Oops....)

Ironically, the only feature of the governor’s yogurt summit that was noticed by the state’s large, liberal and powerful environmental coalition was Cuomo’s bumbling willingness to raise the CAFO limit to 300 cows. Quickly doing the math, multiplying the number of 200-cow New York dairies that could move to 300 cows, the “greens” arrived at an additional 25,000 cows in the Empire State. Heresy! What followed was a massive group hissy-fit and a well deserved first-class public relations headache for the governor. With visions of an additional estimated one billion pounds of cow manure stinking-up and browning-up the upstate landscape and waterways, the Governor has some ’splainin’ to do to these environmental folks.

Undaunted, the Governor forged ahead with two new initiatives. Under the auspices of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), he is doubling a state incentive from $1 million to $2 million per farm for instillation of anaerobic manure digesters. These facilities convert cow manure to methane gas used to generate on-farm electricity. The second proposal is to throw a modest $450,000 of state cash at the Dairy Acceleration Program (DAP) to dole out grants of up to $5,000 to farms wishing to increase cow numbers, and to provide them with aid for financial analysis, strategic planning, executing business expansion plans or adoption of Best Management Practices, engineering and/or design projects.

Today, the rising star of yogurts is strained or Greek-style, which uses three pounds of raw milk to yield one pound of finished product. So, how much additional milk will be required to supply these expanding and new yogurt facilities? The Northeast Dairy Foods Association (NDFA) estimates an additional four billion pounds per year, an increase equal to about 20% of New York’s current yearly milk production. That is not the output of the paltry 25,000 cows of the environmentalists’ deepest fears, but an additional 180,000 dairy cows. NDFA sees this milk increase as required within the next two years, likely an impossible goal. Somebody in Albany needs to take a bite out of the “reality” apple.

Instead of pushing 200-cow farms to 300 cows, wouldn’t upstate New York’s overall economy benefit far more from the revitalization of 900 or 1,000 of the many decommissioned dairy farms that stretch the length and breadth of upstate New York? These new farming operations could easily be peopled with the ambitious, skilled and able offspring of New York’s sturdy dairy farm families. Smaller, family farms are noted for spending their milk checks close to home in their local communities, stimulating many other businesses necessary to the upstate economy. Likewise, they are noted for their effort and just pride in their outstanding tradition of environmental stewardship. Why not invest the $2 million per farm that the governor is willing to throw at large farms through NYSERDA and channel it instead into helping young farm families rebuild sustainable, family-size dairy farms that will benefit a far larger economic segment of upstate New York? This would be an economic stimulus that would last, not a year or two, but a lifetime.

[Nate Wilson, 65, lives in Sinclairville, NY and is retired from 40 years of dairying on a small grassland farm in Chautauqua County.]