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 Cuomo, were it not for an unforseen 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, massive purchases of building materials, and eventually will produce several thousand additional 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, 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 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. 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 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation exemption to include farms up to 300 cows. Too bad he overlooked the fact that any decisions regarding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rather than state jurisdiction.
Undaunted, the governor 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 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 provide aid for 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 estimates the increased amount of milk required at an additional four 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 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation 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 a year or two, but a lifetime.
Gov. 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 New York 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, all 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, a retired dairy farmer, is a Sinclairville resident.