By Bob Confer
Niagara Gazette — The health benefits of yogurt are well known. But, it might also be one of the cures for what ails the upstate economy.
Consider that food production can best be compared to manufacturing. They are alike in that they are the last real wealth creators that we have in our moribund service-heavy economy. They require the growth and/or harvest of natural resources that are utilized by captive processes to create consumer goods and prior/while/after doing so, countless jobs are created in multiple support industries that acquire the resources (farming), provide support components (skid and carton makers), and distribute (trucking), market (TV, radio, and print) and sell (retail) the end product.
That’s why it’s such great news that there’s a yogurt boom of sorts underway in New York. PepsiCO has aligned itself with Theo Muller Group to invest $206 million in a Batavia plant that will open next year, employing 186 people. This comes on the coattails of this fall’s opening of another yogurt producer in that community: Alpina Foods’ $15 million facility will employ 50 by year’s end. This brings the number of yogurt plants in New York to 29.
To meet the near-term demand of the new players, New York dairy farmers will have to increase milk production by 15 percent.
Better yet, in 10 years or so, especially if Pepsi’s foray into the industry takes off (which it just might, especially at a time when the yogurt market is projected to more than double in size over the next decade), that need for milk could be almost a third greater than the current New York-produced supply. Those are heady numbers when one considers that New York is already the third-leading milk producer in the United States and its 5,400 dairy farms account for nearly $2 billion in agricultural receipts.
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.
Hopefully, the side of economic development prevails over excessive governance in this case.
Policymakers should know that farmers are the true environmentalists. They live green and, as the stewards of the land and waters, they know what’s best for their operations and for Mother Nature herself. It’s the natural bounty that they oversee — and care for — that can pay huge dividends for the New York economy, not only in agriculture, but across multiple sectors.Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.