Clear as Milk

Last week’s editorial addressed the issue of CAFOs, but muddled the distinction between a dairy CAFO and a beef cattle CAFO. Dairy farmers obviously aren’t raising their cows for slaughter and it is in their interest to keep the animals in good health for several years.

Ed Switzer of Trumansburg, who sells equipment to local dairies, called to inform the Free Press that the existing local CAFOs are all dairy farmers, with the local beef cattle raisers being smaller operations that send their animals out to pasture. As an indication of how the dairies treat their confined cows, Switzer, in fact, has been selling waterbeds for cows to dairies for the past seven years, in order to cut down on the problem of disposing of soiled straw bedding.

The concern expressed in the April 30 editorial about the treatment of animals in beef cattle CAFOs was more proactive than reactive. The imminent construction of the Empire Biofuels plant on the Seneca Army depot will create a source of “brewers’ grain,” a by-product of ethanol production from corn and regularly used as feed for confined cattle. Local environmentalists have worried that the new source of feed will encourage the development of more and larger regional CAFOs.

Much of the concern revolves around the inescapable fact that land designated as agricultural by the counties and state is subject to much less control as regards land use than is property zoned for other purposes. That is, a local zoning ordinance can not prohibit outright the development of a CAFO, but (for example) limiting the number of animals allowed per acreage of grazing. In the very understandable name of preserving agriculture in the state against the prejudices of the non-agricultural community, farmers may pursue many activities that are prohibited elsewhere.

Dairy farmers have turned to CAFOs in order to stay in business. Federal controls on milk prices have frequently forced dairies to operate at a loss for months on end. In order to simply hold on the farm they have been forced to cut costs wherever possible and this has meant, in some cases, moving toward factory farming. For some farmers, factory farming is better than not farming at all.

The part of New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets that oversees the dairy industry has the improbably sinister name Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services. Last year Ag and Markets administered the Dairy Assistance Program. On April 9, 2007 then-Governor Eliot Spitzer signed legislation authorizing $30 million for New York dairy farmers. One Interlaken farmer interviewed by these newspapers last spring regarded this assistance to be too little and too infrequent to be of any real use, but he duly filled out the application for it.

This sort of resigned indignation is typical of the relationship between small-scale farmers and the state. Less resigned indignation is being expressed by Meadowsweet Farm in Lodi, who is locked in combat with Ag and Markets over its right to distribute raw milk to shareholders. This sort of quixotic undertaking could be the beginning of a grassroots rebellion against state control of agriculture, which seems more and more out of touch with what farmers need and want, what consumers need and want, and, frankly, what is practical as regards the environment and energy use.

People outside of the agricultural community should not oppose CAFOs without proposing alternatives. Non-profit organizations should not oppose CAFOs without lobbying federal and state authorities to change regulations to allow farmers to farm without turning their farms into factories.

The concentration of animals in a CAFO may not lead to poor animal health at a dairy, but few people – farmer or non-farmer – deny that it is a potential environmental problem. The manure storage problem can be addressed directly – by making its content free of industrial additives, its storage safe, its disposal affordable – and indirectly – by helping the agricultural community to free itself of the existing structure of state regulations, which cater to a consumer culture accustomed to cheap food and a corporate culture accustomed to farmers that they have backed into a proverbial corner.

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3 responses to “Clear as Milk

  1. Bill,

    I’m glad you’re posting your op ed’s, and I liked your first one on CAFO’s. I’m relieved to know, after the second editorial, that Elsie is resting comfortably on a water bed. These CAFO’s are kind of like health spas then? Quite a different picture is painted in this article, http://lernercontent.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/toxic-fumes-blisters-brain-damage-the-cost-of-doing-business-april-2-2008-ithaca-times/

  2. Laurie Winkelman

    In response to the article cited by the previous comment, I would like to pose one question. If the toxic fumes caused people not within 100 yards of the dairy to get sick, then why weren’t the employees or family members that actually work and live on the farm affected? Let’s use a little common sense here. Those “affected” were looking for a scapegoat.

    Interestingly, the investigative reporter for that article conducted the entire “interview” over the phone from New Jersey. She did not visit the area or the dairy. There is definitely a lack of credibility for the reporter that fails to even witness what she is reporting on.

  3. Bill Chaisson

    I entered into the debate over CAFOs with some trepidation because it too often and too quickly tends to come down to a debate between farmers and people who don’t know much about farming and have little or no empathy for farmers.

    My feeling about CAFOs (and factory farming in general) is that they are a strategy of corporate interests to get farm products as cheaply as possible. Rhetorically, they are put in place to “help” the farmers, but actually bringing the industrial model to farming seems to have its perils, both economic and (other side of the coin) environmental.

    Most of the farmers that I have ever spoken with have a strong affection for their livestock. In dairy, in particular, many of the cows’ individual personalities are known and taken into account on a daily basis.

    This is in marked contrast to your sarcastic reference to “Elsie,” an abstraction manufactured by a long-ago advertising campaign. Elsie is perhaps emblematic of the difference between two ways of thinking about animals.

    Farmers spend hour upon hour with their animals, but also know that the animals are a commodity and crucial to their livelihood. Beef cattle come and go relatively quickly, but dairy cows will likely produce for several years and one will inevitably get to know them. And yet when their usefulness is at an end, they must be slaughtered. One does not build a retirement cottage for a cow.

    This is in strict contradistinction to the non-farmers’ view of cows: they likely can not (and perhaps would not think to) tell one individual cow from another. They tend to care for cows as a class of beings that deserve respect. They are, in the 18th century Continental sense (see above editorial), bringing abstract principles to a situation and making decisions about particular cases based on them.

    This is similar to the well-meaning, but uninformed caller who alerted me to the thinning of trees along Rt. 89 last month (see article below). He felt that the cutting down of any tree was bad, which is – to be blunt – silly.

    Many well-meaning bourgeoise have no feeling for or knowledge of stewardship: taking care of the land and its inhabitants. They believe that the land is just something pretty to look at. To make a gross oversimplication – just be irritating – I blame John Muir.

    As for Rebecca Lerner’s article, a more recent response by the Willet Dairy’s attorney points out that no cause and effect has been even remotely established in that case. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but only to point out that when you are going up against the big boys, you’d better have a good case. Because every time people are truly injured, but unable to prove it, it makes it that much harder for the next plaintiff.

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