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Source: The Ithaca Journal

Dairy regulations to be focus of Albany 'Yogurt Summit'

BY JON CAMPBELL
ALBANY BUREAU

Posted: August 17, 2012
Originally Published: August 13, 2012

ALBANY — In name, an event Wednesday at the state Capitol is being touted as the New York State Yogurt Summit.

But while upstate’s burgeoning yogurt plants may have been the impetus for the open discussion, it will largely focus on a separate industry -- dairy farming.

“We want to see how we can use this opportunity to grow the dairy industry now to fuel those yogurt plants, and how can the state government help the dairy farmers,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a public radio interview last week.

The issue, according to Cuomo, is the state’s rapidly expanding yogurt manufacturers have a greater need for milk than the state’s farmers are currently able to produce. Chenango County-based Chobani Greek Yogurt, for example, is expanding in Idaho, in part because the state has more milk available.

Behind the scenes, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been in discussions with environmental groups and farm advocates over New York’s dairy regulations.

At issue is a state permitting programs for farms known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. Under state regulations, any dairy farm with more than 200 cows has to obtain a CAFO permit, which requires farmers to hire a certified planner to come up with an approved strategy to deal with runoff from the animals’ waste.

Currently, 501 farms in New York hold a state CAFO permit, according to the DEC.

The cost to individual farmers, according to New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton, can run anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 to develop and implement a plan. And in many cases the cost has been prohibitive for farmers with fewer than 200 cows who are looking to expand, he said.

“We think that 200 is quite a small number for today, and it’s limiting some of the smaller, medium-sized areas that may want to expand but don’t want to invest the dollars involved to put the CAFO plan together,” said Norton, a dairy farmer in Batavia, Genesee County.

Simply increasing the state limit, however, is an option that is unacceptable to many environmentalists, who say the risk of increased pollution from additional cow waste is too great to ignore.

A handful of environmental groups were first contacted by the state DEC several weeks ago. Initially, the groups had concerns, but some say progress has been made in recent weeks.

“I want to continue to see where this goes and to have a conversation,” said Katherine Nadeau, a program director for Environmental Advocates of New York and a member of the state’s CAFO workgroup.

“They have assured us that this is going to be a very public process and they are going to do it through regulations, so that gives us additional opportunity in that arena to continue to advocate.”

The issue of regulating waste from cows is particularly significant in the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes all or part of 19 counties, including Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Livingston, Ontario, Tompkins and Yates.

That region is under a strict mandate from the federal government to limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus it can discharge into the Susquehanna River. The river ultimately empties into the Chesapeake Bay, the polluted estuary between Maryland and Virginia.

Farm runoff from cow manure generally has high nitrogen content. In a March document detailing its compliance with the Chesapeake Bay program, the DEC wrote that some medium-sized dairy farms have “the pollution potential of a major sewage treatment plant.”

Now, the DEC is looking at which farms should fall into which regulatory program. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets administers a voluntary program that offers farmers assistance in coming up with a management plan, while the federal government has its own CAFO regulations for farms that meet certain thresholds.

In the end, both Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said they’re confident changes can be made that would allow farms to expand without jeopardizing the environment.

“We think that there’s a potential here that we could actually increase and encourage people to bring more cows on the farm and get overall improvement on nutrient management on farms,” Martens said in a recent interview with Gannett’s Albany Bureau. “We’re trying to do both simultaneously.”

One idea that has been floated to environmentalists is requiring some farms to enroll in the state Agriculture Department’s program.

William Cooke, a hog farmer and government relations director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said his group is open to slightly increasing the 200-cow limit, but only if the removed farmers are required to enroll in the separate initiative.

“Farming is a big part of New York’s future,” Cooke said. “We absolutely, positively need to help farmers any way we reasonably can, but we’re not going to help them pollute.”