Not Bigger Farms, Gov. Cuomo, More Farms

The economy of Upstate New York has been in decline and serial malaise for several decades. This has been the economic bane and supposed obsession of several previous governors’ administrations. It would be for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, too, were it not for an unforeseen economic gift that has dropped into his lap as he occasionally turned his thoughts to Upstate New York’s struggling fortunes.

This windfall? New construction and serious expansion of dozens of yogurt processing plants all across Upstate New York. Several of these plants will have massive potential production capacity. This trend has brought construction jobs, real estate sales, massive building material purchases 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. On Aug. 15, 2012, 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, properly neutered and holding appropriate opinion, of course (this to give the illusion 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. Any farm over 200 cows has to undergo a prohibitively expensive environmental vetting process allowing it to operate above the 200-cow threshold. Hearing this, the governor sprang into action. Leaving the summit room for a brief period, he returned triumphant to announce 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 the governor’s to make – CAFOs are under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rather than Cuomo’s state jurisdiction. Oops.

Ironically, the only feature of the governor’s yogurt summit that was noticed by the state’s large, liberal and all powerful environmental coalition was Cuomo’s bumbling willingness to raise the 200 cow CAFO limit to 300 cows. They heard that, loud and clear. 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 nightmare scenario visions of an additional estimated 1 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! Until he accomplishes this, his face will likely be the likeness most seen on the dartboards on New York City environmental clubhouse walls.

Undaunted, the governor forged ahead with two new initiatives: under the auspices of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, 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, throwing a modest $450,000 of state cash at the Dairy Acceleration Program to dole out up to $5,000 grants to farms wishing to increase cow numbers, to aid in such things as financial analysis, strategic planning, executing business expansion plans or adoption of Best Management Practices, engineering and/or design projects.

Yogurt, depending on type, uses one to three pounds of raw milk to produce one pound of finished product. The rising star of yogurts, strained (or Greek-style), uses three pounds of milk per pound of finished product. Taking stock of the milk requirements of these expanding or new yogurt facilities, the official mouthpiece of the region’s dairy processors, the Northeast Dairy Foods Association, puts a figure on the increased amount of milk required at an additional 4 billion pounds per year. This is an increase equal to about 20 percent of New York’s current yearly milk production; the output of, not 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; timewise, this is 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 multitude of decommissioned dairy farms over the length and breadth of Upstate New York? These new operations could be easily peopled with the ambitious, skilled and able offspring of New York’s sturdy dairy farm families. Smaller, family-type farms are noted for spending their milkchecks close to home, in their local communities, stimulating all the other businesses necessary to the upstate economy. Likewise, they are noted for their long history of effort and just pride in their outstanding tradition of environmental stewardship. Why not invest the $2 million per farm the governor is willing to throw at large farms through NYSERDA and channel it into helping young New York farm families rebuild sustainable family size dairy farms, thus benefiting 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.

Shouldn’t the question in Gov. Cuomo’s mind be how New York’s dairy farms can be returned to their former profitability, viability and become, once again, economically sustainable? How can the New York dairy industry grow, thrive and become a robust economic engine helping pull the entire upstate economy back into the black and prosperity?

Simple; the governor, all other politicians, public policy types and concerned citizens need to give voice and political support to an initiative to reform the USDA farm milk price formula. There is a compelling public interest in the need to create farm milk payprices that return dairy farmers’ production costs and a fair profit to cover the farm family’s living expenses. Accomplish that and the rest of this supposedly thorny problem will resolve itself, with a dynamic, revitalized and resurgent Upstate New York general economy as a worthy consequence.

Nate Wilson, 65, is retired from 40 years dairying farming on a small, grassland hill farm in Chautauqua County.