New York’s southern tier, which refers to the counties west of the Catskill Mountains just north of Pennsylvania, was once known as New York City’s milkshed and egg basket. Dairy farmers are some of the region’s largest landowners and most are ready to lease their land, if they haven’t already.
“We’re hugely in favor of gas drilling,” Peter Gregg, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau told me. “It turns out that a lot of the drilling potential happens to lay underneath our farms,” he added. “So we’ve advised our farmers that they negotiate good and fair leases with the gas companies.”
Stefan Gieger, who lives in the New York township of Callicoon and has 70 head of cattle, says that there are probably only a handful of dairy farmers who will resist the pressure to lease. In recent years, the price of milk has fallen to levels last seen in the 1970s even as the cost of feed and equipment has skyrocketed. “Farmers have been cash strapped and unable to make a living for decades,” he told me.
Gieger fears that rather than save dairy farmers, gas drilling will mark the end of an agrarian economy with roots in the region since at least the mid-1800s. Indirectly, he says, gas drilling will kill agriculture: The easy earnings from the extraction industry will dissuade people from continuing the hard work of farming. “I think people should be very concerned about the farmers going out of business,” he said.
And not only dairy farmers.
Mark Dunau, an organic vegetable farmer with 50 acres in nearby Hancock, says that he bought his land more than 20 years ago because of the access to clean, abundant water. His livelihood is dependent on the quality of his well and a spring fed pond. “I resent people who say this is the only way farmers can survive, because I’m a farmer and it’s threatening me,” Dunau said.
He also says it is wishful thinking to suggest that dairy farmers will continue to farm once they’ve leased their land. His neighbor, Brian Begeal, who owns a 312-acre dairy farm, has already leased his land and plans to retire as soon as possible. Two of Dunau’s close friends – a fifth-generation and a third-generation dairy farmer – also plan to lease. “Farmers who are signing are stopping production,” Gieger said.
In late October, I caught up with Earl Myers, one of Gieger’s neighbors, on a ridgeline overlooking a valley on the outskirts of Callicoon. The earth was wet from a steady rain that had fallen since early morning and the clouds had parted, filling the fields with late afternoon sunlight. Across several fields, Gieger’s farm was visible.
Public Comment Period
That evening Myers would attend the first public hearing for comments on New York State’s draft environmental impact statement for drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The comment period, which ended December 31, revealed the faultlines that have opened up over gas drilling. State officials received more than 12,000 comments and, at what were often marathon sessions, pro- and anti-drilling factions faced off over the potential impacts of gas drilling on the environment, economy, and communities of the southern tier.
Myers had already attended close to 15 public meetings and information sessions, as well as several screenings of Split Estate, a harrowing film on natural gas drilling contamination in Colorado.
When Myers started farming 50 years ago, he had more than 20 neighbors. Today, he and his family farm nearly 1,000 acres, more than half of it acquired from neighbors who have left. He can see why dairy farmers would lease their land. He knows many who have. “The money’s the one that talks really,” he told me. “That’s what worries me.” As for whether he’ll lease his own land, Myers said, “I think about it. At the same time I still don’t endorse it.”
In the last decade, as dairy farms have declined, the number of organic vegetable farms in New York has grown. Last year, the North East Organic Farming Association certified 569 farms in the state, up from 200 a decade ago.
Greg Swartz came to the region in 1999 to apprentice on an organic farm in Sullivan County and recently purchased 12 acres in nearby Abrahamsville, PA, where he grows 50 varieties of vegetables. This year he started a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and says that interest is high.
“There’s really endless potential for making a living with the land,” he told me in December. “Dairy farmers know that the only way for farming in this area to be revitalized is to not be focused on dairy.”
But if the choice is one of diversifying or leasing to a gas company, there is little hope that they will choose the former. When I met Swartz, the last of the end-of-season leeks and celeriac could be seen in the field in front of his house. A light rain was falling and the valley was quiet and empty. Swartz pointed out a stream to the east, a wetland to the north, and several small creeks that border his field.
Soil: The Farmer's Bank Account
All of Swartz’s neighbors have leased their land to gas companies and Swartz now faces a dilemma: whether to sell his land (he has no intention of leasing it to the gas companies), or stay and make an investment in the future of his farm. Over Thanksgiving his brother advised him to sell. But Swartz is wedded to the area – his wife runs a small theater company, they have an infant son, and the success of the farm is tied to the community. He can’t just pick up and start over.