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Milking a stinker

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Is there anything that wouldn’t blossom once you toss a few cow chips into the mix?

It’s no secret that animal manure is nature’s best fertilizer as a result of the nutrients it contains. It’s a way of recycling what comes from the land back to the land. Farmers have known this for centuries, and it’s still widely used today.

However, precautions must be taken to ensure the microbes found in manure don’t pollute our groundwater. Following the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulates how much manure can be spread over the fields of dairy farms based on the size of their herds.

Dairy farms with between 200 and 299 cows were previously classified as medium-sized concentrated animal food operations. The intent of restricting how much manure these farms can use is to prevent the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in animal waste from making their way into our supplies of drinking water.

But dairy farms in Northern New York are major contributors to the production of Greek yogurt. State lawmakers want to encourage small farmers to increase their herds to meet the rising demand for the dairy milk needed to make Greek yogurt.

During a Greek yogurt summit in Albany last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed easing CAFO regulations. Adoption of this measure means that farms may now own as many as 299 cows before CAFO regulations kick in.

This initiative, though, did not sit well with environmental groups. They have filed suit against the DEC, claiming the agency is violating the Clean Water Act.

CAFO regulations compel farmers to build manure storage facilities and lagoons to prevent manure runoff from contaminating waterways. But now that many farms can increase their herds while not qualifying as CAFOs, the likelihood that they will pollute the water has increased, these groups claim. Since they can spread more manure without adhering to these safeguards, the environmental risks are greater, they claim.

No one should take potential hazards to the environment lightly, as there are far too many instances of shortcuts being taken in the name of economic growth that have resulted in ecological damage.

But dairy farmers in the north country have been very responsible stewards of the land they use, and there is no reason to believe this will change. Other governmental regulations will continue to require them to ensure what they are doing does not harm the environment.

Loosening the rules for CAFOs is a good way to increase milk production and boost the local economy, something desperately needed here. This lawsuit will consume some of the state’s financial resources that could be used to keep watch over the environment. The suit should be dismissed, and farmers should be allowed to tend to their cows and their land in the sensible manner they have done for years.

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