Farming in the Northeast

Earlier this fall, one of our Agricultural Consulting Services (ACS) planners, was asked to put together some information for state legislators describing the value of farming in the northeast and the regulatory requirements that must be met to do so. This has great information for consumers unfamiliar with farming in the northeast or farmers  having conversations with those people:

The vast majority of dairy farms in New York are multi-generational, family farms.  They have continued through the generations because our climate and soils are well suited for dairy farming.  Our mild temperatures, plentiful rainfall, and highly varied soils are ideal for keeping cattle comfortable and for growing forages, the primary feed sources for cattle.  The Northeast location also allows for efficient transportation of dairy products to large markets in Boston, New York City, and Washington DC.

New York dairy farmers have the advantage of being able to grow their own feed for their cattle. By applying the cattle’s manure to the fields, nutrients are recycled back into feed production to build the soil’s organic matter and reinforce healthy soil microbes.

When a farm grows to 300 cows or more in New York it becomes designated as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), requiring regulation via a permit.  While these permits can be complex, their focus is on controlling the loss of nutrients from the farm in two major areas: crops and the farmstead.  Each CAFO must apply their manure according to an annual Nutrient Management Plan that very specifically assigns a nutrient budget for each crop in each field.  The farmstead is controlled by a farmstead design and management plan that prevents nutrient discharges up to key rain event thresholds.

Manure storages are a major tool for helping farms meet their regulatory requirements as well as take advantage of the efficiencies of recycling nutrients.  The storages can capture excess waste water from the farmstead and allow the farm some flexibility in the timing of manure applications.  Manure storages must be designed, built, and approved by a professional engineer. These storages are also regulated and inspected by the NY DEC as a part of the farm’s CAFO permit.  When a CAFO plans to build a new manure storage they must notify the DEC 30 days prior to construction.

There are two different permits that farms can choose from in New York: the federal “Clean Water Act” (CWA) permit and the state, “Environmental Conservation Law” (ECL).   While both permits are stringent, they differ in a few ways.

The CWA permit requires putting the farms Nutrient Management Plan, as well as any necessary changes, up for public review 14 days prior to implementing. DEC approval is also required before a change can be made.  The variable weather and soil in the Northeast often requires farms to change plans for a field or a crop in a specific field within days of planting in order to keep land in production.  These changes are less likely in many other parts of the country where they farm on fewer, larger fields that are often irrigated.

The ECL permit allows the farm to update their Nutrient Management Plan more quickly with their Agricultural Environmental Management Certified Planner. However, the NY State ECL permit requires farmstead management and design to avoid discharges up to a 100 year storm event, compared to the CWA permit which requires discharges to be avoided up to a 25 year storm event.  The trade-off for being able to keep fields efficiently in production makes it worthwhile for most eligible farms to accept the more stringent ECL permit.

If you have questions about CAFO permits or Nutrient Management Plans, contact Agricultural Consulting Services at [email protected]