A coalition of New York state environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the state’s environmental regulators in July. The groups claim that the Department of Environmental Conservation violated environmental law when it loosened the regulation of dairy farms. The result is that the state’s very public support of the yogurt industry may have hit a roadblock.
During a highly publicized Yogurt Summit last year in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the spirit behind the industry in New York.
“When you see an opportunity, grab it and get it done,” Cuomo said.
But at the summit, it was New York’s small dairy farmers who saw an opportunity. One problem for New York’s yogurt production is a shortage of locally produced milk available, and as one farmer explained to the gathered officials, regulations were the cause.
"It will cost us $2,400 per cow to implement the regulations.”
Kerry Adams is a dairy farmer in Ontario County. She said she’s limiting a planned expansion from 60 cows to 199 because anymore cows would trigger waste management regulations. Last year in New York a dairy farm with 200 to 699 cows was labeled a medium-sized Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO. That meant the farmer had to submit to the state an expert-prepared waste management plan. That’s what would have cost Adams $2400 per cow.
So the officials huddled off to the side and a decision was made.
“We’re immediately increasing the animal threshold required for the CAFO permit from 200 to 300," said Cuomo’s Agriculture Commissioner Darrell Aubertine.
Cuomo would later say that it wasn’t a done deal, that the proper procedures had to be followed. But, sure enough, the change was made in April and farms with between 200 and 299 cows no longer have to submit waste management plans.
Bill Cooke is from the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, one of the groups suing the DEC over the rule change. He says the only question now is when the next large spill will happen.
“I’m shocked today, I’ve been shocked for months," Cooke said. "I don’t understand who thought this was a good idea. I don’t understand who thought they wouldn’t get sued.”
It was a lawsuit brought by Cooke’s group in the 1990s that led to New York’s permitting requirement in the first place.
The New York Farm Bureau’s Cathy Mural says with or without regulations, farmers need to control how they apply manure.
“There’s something called an agronomic rate where a farmer knows his land and how much the land can take up at certain periods of time, which is healthy for the soil and healthy for his crop, which is what he wants,” Mural said.
She added that the rule change is needed to maintain the viability of family-owned dairy farms.
“New York State’s CAFO program is one of the most rigorous in the country," Mural said. "It also makes it one of the most expensive to actually come up to full compliance.”
According to Cornell University, there are 855 farms in New York below the older 200 cow threshold. The state estimates that, in the first year, 50 of those farms will expand beyond the old threshold.
Kate Hudson is the watershed program director at Riverkeeper, one of the groups suing the DEC. She says the state changed the rule way too quickly.
“What the state could have done and should have done was to find financial resources to support these medium-sized dairy farmers in putting in place the protections that are necessary to protect everybody’s water quality,” Hudson said.
The lawsuit seeks the reinstatement of the old regulations. The groups have asked for a court appearance in September.