|NY Farmers Reject Anti-Hydrofracking Position at Farm Bureau Meeting
LIVERPOOL, N.Y. - Farmers today shot down a proposal to oppose hydrofracking, the deeply divisive natural gas drilling process that has split New Yorkers from tables to farms.
The decision from delegates of the New York Farm Bureau was no surprise. The 25,000-member group has a strong voice in Albany and has long-supported hydrofracking as a way to improve economies for individual farmers and the state's rural counties.
Some farmers who live near the Pennsylvania border, where fracking is allowed, say they see jobs and money overflowing from the wells. Many are frustrated that Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn't made a decision on whether to allow fracking just a few miles north.
"With us and our farm, that's our livelihood," said Judi Whittaker, a delegate and dairy farmer from Broome County whose milk ends up in Chobani yogurt. "With no decision, we're stuck."
Cuomo seems stuck as well. The Democrat faces re-election next year from voters who are consistently split on hydraulic fracturing, a deep drilling method that uses water and chemicals to fracture rock horizontally to bring up natural gas. The potential drilling areas include parts of Central New York and the Southern Tier. Currently, Cuomo is awaiting a report on the possible public health implications of hydrofracking from his health commissioner. The report has no expected due date.
That delay frustrates Bradd Vickers, a beef and tree farmer who lives above the Marcellus Shale in Chenango County and has helped others learn how to negotiate more favorable leases with the gas companies. "There isn't a farmer out there who says, 'Oh, yes. I want to pollute my water and watch my cows die,'" he said.
But a handful of farmers at the bureau's meeting are worried about just that, and they introduced a new sentence into the group's platform to formally oppose high volume, deep drilling hydrofracking. As the outliers made their arguments, many fracking supporters lined up for the microphones. In the end, the group as a whole agreed to end debate and take a voice vote. The pro-fracking voices overwhelmingly won. Only a handful of "ayes" supporting the anti-fracking language could be heard.
Ed Gates was one of those faint voices. At his farm in Schuyler County at the foot of Seneca Lake, he uses well water to feed the 900 cows he milks each day. "If there's significant damage to the wells, I'll be out of business," he said.
But Whittaker Farms in Broome County also depends on well water. To Judi Whittaker, the risk is whether she and her husband will be able to pass a financially stable business from a sixth generation of dairy farmers to the seventh.
In 2010, Whittaker voted for Cuomo. She hosted Robert Duffy, now New York's lieutenant governor, at her dining room table during the last gubernatorial campaign, when there was talk of allowing hydrofracking in a small area of the Southern Tier as a test case for other parts of the state.
Since then, the arguments against hydrofracking have boomed while the gas industry's interest has waned, leaving the Whittakers to wait. The family has had gas leases on their land, of one kind or another, dating back to the 1930s.
The latest one, signed in 2000 with Chesapeake Energy, sold the family short, the Whittakers say. It didn't offer to test water before and as drilling occurred, and it had no restrictions on where drills or buildings could go. The old lease offered $3 an acre per year; nearly a decade later, Whittaker says she knows of farmers getting $2,000 an acre or more per year.
That lease is dead now, after Chesapeake walked away this fall from a legal challenge from the Whittakers and dozens of others. But the family is ready to consider another lease, she said, depending on the terms and the safety assurances for their family and cows.
Julie Vanderlee understands the promise of that money, which would lessen the debts of farmers and help them buy new equipment or even repaint barns.
"There's a lot of money to be made," said Vanderless, another farm bureau delegate who works in Dutchess County at Fishkill Farms, a crop farm that grows organic vegetables and raises chickens for farmers' markets and restaurants in the New York City area.
But Vanderlee, who opposes hydrofracking, believes the money is a short-sighted reward. The gas supply will dry up, and Vanderlee is worried about mistakes left in the drilling's wake.
"Farming is a difficult business," she said, and the leases provide a cushion that can be hard to turn down. But she wonders if the next generation will feel that way. "What about your kids who have to farm when you're gone."
Contact Teri Weaver at firstname.lastname@example.org, 315-470-2274 or on Twitter at @TeriKWeaver.