The economy of upstate New York has been in decline and serial malaise for several decades. This has been the bane of several previous governors and their administrations. It would be also for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, were it not for an unforeseen economic gift that has dropped into his lap.
This windfall? New construction and serious expansion of dozens of yogurt processing plants all across upstate New York. Several of these plants have potentially massive production capacity. This trend has brought construction jobs and massive purchases of building materials. It eventually will produce several thousand more good manufacturing jobs. All that will be needed will be copious amounts of additional milk.
The reaction of the Cuomo administration has been wholly predictable: wild enthusiasm and somewhat sophomoric ideas as to what is appropriate. On Aug. 15, 2012, the governor hosted the first 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 the appropriate opinion, of course.
An 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 more than 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 include farms up to 300 cows. Too bad he overlooked the fact that any decisions regarding CAFOs are under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rather than state jurisdiction.
Undaunted, Cuomo forged ahead with two new initiatives. Under the auspices of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the state is doubling a state incentive grant from $1 million to $2 million per farm for installation of anaerobic manure digesters. These facilities convert cow manure to methane gas used to generate on-farm electricity.
The second initiative throws 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 and to provide aid for financial analysis, strategic planning, executing business expansion plans or adopting best management practices, engineering and/or design projects.
Yogurt, depending on the type, uses 1 to 3 pounds of raw milk to produce 1 pound of finished product. The rising star of yogurts, strained, (or Greek-style) uses 3 pounds of milk per pound of finished product. Taking stock of the milk requirements of these new or expanding yogurt facilities, the official mouthpiece of the region’s dairy processors, the Northeast Dairy Foods Association, estimates the increased amount of milk required at an additional 4 billion pounds per year. This is an increase equal to 20 percent of New York’s current yearly milk production; the output of, not the paltry 25,000 cows Cuomo’s 200-cow to 300-cow CAFO tinkering would render, but an additional 180,000 dairy cows!
Instead of pushing 200-cow farms to 300 cows, wouldn’t upstate New York’s overall economy benefit far more from the revitalization of 1,000 or more 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 skilled offspring of New York’s dairy farm families. Smaller, family farms are noted for spending their milk checks close to home in their local communities, stimulating all the other businesses necessary to the upstate economy. Likewise, they are noted for their long tradition of effort in outstanding environmental stewardship.
Why not invest the $2 million per farm the governor is willing to throw at large farms through NYSERDA grants and channel it into helping young 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 just a year or two, but a lifetime.
Cuomo should be considering how New York’s dairy farms can be returned to their former viability and become, once again, economically sustainable. Done properly, the state’s dairy industry can grow responsibly, thrive and become a robust economic engine helping pull the entire upstate economy back into prosperity.
An excellent starting point would be for the governor, other politicians and concerned citizens to give voice and political support to an initiative to reform the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm milk price formula. There is a compelling public interest in the need to create farm milk pay prices that return dairy farmers’ production costs, plus 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, resurgent upstate New York general economy as a worthy consequence.
Nate Wilson, of Sinclairville, is retired from 40 years of dairy farming on a small, grassland hill farm in New York’s beautiful Chautauqua County.