The long-term future is bright for Empire State dairy farmers. But, there are some short-term obstacles in their way that may inhibit — and, in many cases, outright prevent — their investment in this newfound demand. The most onerous and wasteful hurdle — especially since its expense will do nothing to increase efficiency or add to property, equipment or head of cattle — is the cost associated with the Clean Water Act.
The states administer the agricultural portion of the Act for the federal government and here, in New York, a farm goes from being “just” a farm to a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) once it has 200 mature dairy cows. Upon reaching that mark, the farm must go through a detailed permitting process and meet a multitude of regulations concerning theoretical animal waste runoff across its operations.
That requires the development and implementation of an environmental strategy which can cost in upwards of $150,000 at the start and $5,000 more each and every year. That outlay can stymie plans to expand, because the farmer has even larger investments (which would actually show rewards in improved revenues and profits) to make in more cows, the barns to house them and the equipment to feed, clean and milk them. The CAFO standards only add to that financial stress.
Understanding that this can make or break the burgeoning yogurt industry (as well as dairy as a whole), agribusiness and political leaders have been pushing for an increase in the CAFO threshold to 300 animals. That simple change would allow – and incentivize — hundreds of farms to expand (the average dairy operation in New York has 113 cows) without government burden, and capitalize on the increased demand.
At a state yogurt summit held in August, Governor Andrew Cuomo said it will become a duty of his administration to make good on the 300 head threshold. But, that’s easier said than done. In order to go through with this plan, the Department of Environmental Conservation must study it, put it to writing and put it out for public comment. The Governor will find foes in environmental quarters, as upon his announcement, various organizations influential in New York’s green movement blasted his idea. They will have strength in numbers and in influence (based on their connections with the DEC officials) which can — and might just — prevent the expansion of the CAFO lower limit.