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Cuomo in Billion-Pound Manure Fight as New York Promotes Yogurt

August 26, 2013
 
 

The lawsuit protests the governor's recent permit allowing more dairy cows in the wake of growing yogurt demand.

Freeman Klopott

All that stands between dairy farmer Kerry Adams and expanding her herd of cows to tap New York’s booming yogurt industry is 1 billion pounds of manure.

Adams was planning to take advantage of a change Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through this year that allows farmers to increase their herds to 299 from 199 before permits are required, which can add more than $150,000 to expansion costs. Then environmental groups sued to block the move, saying expanding dairy production will add 1 billion pounds (454 million kilograms) of unregulated cow dung annually, damaging waterways.

"It’s frustrating," said Adams, who is keeping her herd at 195 while she awaits the lawsuit’s outcome. "As farmers, we’re very conscious of being stewards of the land."

Led by Greek-style yogurt and its biggest U.S. maker, New Berlin, New York-based Chobani Inc., producers of the fermented milk product have added more than 1,300 jobs upstate since 2007. Cuomo, 55, a first-term Democrat heading into an election year, says yogurt is a key to boosting the region’s struggling economy.

New York is a natural home for companies seeking to cash in on the Greek yogurt craze, said Andrew Novakovic, a Cornell University professor who studies the agricultural economy. It’s the third-largest milk-producing state, providing access to the 50 million people who live between Boston and Washington.

Local Windfall

As state yogurt production climbed to 695 million pounds in 2012 from 267 million in 2009, the New York dairy industry hasn’t grown as rapidly, according to Novakovic. Greek yogurt has three times more milk than the traditional product, Novakovic said. The companies can pipe milk in from other states, though that doesn’t help New York’s farmers, he said.

"All of our milk comes from the Northeast, and the majority is from New York," said Russell Evans, marketing director for Johnstown, New York-based Fage USA Dairy Industry Inc., which is spending $100 million to double its yogurt-making capacity. "It was a natural extension for us to move upstate to where there is a ready supply of milk and a strong transportation network."

As in some other states, milk prices in New York are set by federal regulators. Even with increased demand from yogurt producers, prices aren’t rising, according to Novakovic and the New York Farm Bureau. To increase profits, farmers need to produce more milk, which means adding cows.

Not Cheap

By increasing the herd limit to 299, the state expected that 285 farms would add 25,000 cows over the next decade, creating 875 agricultural jobs and reversing a trend over the last decade in which the number of New York milking cows dropped by 9 percent, according to the Environmental Conservation Department’s review of the change, which took effect in May.

A permit requires farmers to handle the increased manure load. They must pay a certified planner as much as $15,000, obtain engineering designs for new systems that can cost $50,000 and execute them for about $100,000, the review said. That’s in addition to the $382,000 needed for cows, land and holding pens.

Adams, 59, a fourth-generation farmer in Shortsville, raised the issue during the Yogurt Summit Cuomo convened in August 2012. The meeting brought together dairy farmers, yogurt executives and state officials to discuss boosting economic development upstate. One of the main topics was a call to change the permit limit to help smaller farms, said Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau.

Court Challenge

"The summit laid the groundwork to increase milk production, which takes a lot of planning for family farmers," Ammerman said by phone. "Now, farmers looking to grow don’t want to cross the 199 threshold because of this pending lawsuit."

The suit, filed last month in state Supreme Court in Albany by environmental groups, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Riverkeeper, said New York is putting rivers, lakes and drinking water in danger because farmers will add cows without manure-mitigation systems. Cow dung carries bacteria that can cause sickness and nutrients that can spur algae blooms, which kill fish and can harm humans, according to the lawsuit.

Kate Hudson, the watershed program director for Riverkeeper, said the state should have provided funds for farmers to implement manure-handling plans rather than changing the requirements.

‘Inappropriate Attempt’

"This is an inappropriate attempt to create an economic benefit by sacrificing environmental protection," Hudson said by phone. "We’ve challenged the process as well as the outcome."

In its review of the regulation change, the state said farmers would be encouraged to add manure-mitigation systems even if they don’t exceed the 299 limit. The Health Department has separate regulations to protect drinking water, the review said. Cuomo also is providing funding to help farmers build anaerobic digesters, which process cow feces -- along with the byproduct from Greek yogurt manufacturing -- and capture methane to produce electricity.

"At the Yogurt Summit, Governor Cuomo heard firsthand how these overly burdensome regulations prevented growth and created barriers that kept New York dairy farmers from providing milk to fuel this state’s booming Greek yogurt industry," Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. "Easing this regulation was the right thing to do and we’re confident the courts will agree."

Adams and Travis Rea, whose family has owned a dairy farm north of Albany in Cambridge for 215 years, said they’re planning to mitigate their manure as they grow anyway. Both, though, are holding off on expanding until they know the outcome of the lawsuit.

"We don’t have much money day to day and we’re up against groups that do," Rea said by phone. "The environmentalists, they kind of scare me."

The case is Riverkeeper Inc. v. Martens, 4166/2013, New York State Supreme Court, Albany County.

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