72,000-Cow CAFO: Revitalizing Rural New York, or Ousting Small Farms?

My family operates a grass-fed beef and lamb farm in Meredith, NY. I am on a New York state beef producers email list that shares information on beef news in New York, and when I received an email about a proposed CAFO that would house 72,000 cows, I was alarmed. Not only is the scale extremely big (it would be the largest CAFO east of the Mississippi) but it was being advertised as sustainable. I began to reach out to my personal network of academics and beef farmers and was surprised by the differing reactions. The resulting conversations and viewpoints brought to light the complexity of our current agricultural debate and the dire situation most rural economies find themselves in, especially in upstate New York.

Our family opposes the proposed CAFO for many reasons, some of which include animal welfare, a possible decrease in the allure of local New York state Beef, and the fact that we encounter many issues of inadequate infrastructure, such as long waits for slaughter spots for our cattle and lambs. We also pay high taxes and get very little back in the way of help from the state. In fact, sometimes we feel as if the state is trying to put us out of business. Currently New York has no true beef market and many of our calves get shipped out west to feedlots, disadvantaging many beef producers instate. Not only that, we have a general dearth of independently-owned USDA processing plants that makes many direct-sale farms impossible. This CAFO promises to source its cattle from local dairy and beef farms, and this makes it popular with some beef producers because currently we have no such system. As someone who has gone to many a livestock auction, I am skeptical of this, as there is no reason that they cannot fudge “local.”

The fact that Bion Environmental Technologies, Inc., the company behind the proposed CAFO, is being welcomed with open arms by a struggling upstate community belies the need we have for infrastructure that would support a vibrant and profitable rural economy. I would love for New York state and the federal government to find a way to promote more USDA slaughter houses, or help young people utilize the almost 3 million acres of unused pastureland in New York alone.

The question that lingers is what sort of tax breaks, subsidies and infrastructural support Bion Environmental Technologies, Inc will receive. Bion would serve as a “closed loop” ethanol plant. Corn would be shipped from the Midwest via Lake Ontario through Oswego’s port and turned into ethanol. The byproducts would be fed to cattle and the manure from the cattle would be used to create energy for the ethanol plant. When asked if state or federal tax dollars were going to be used for the project, Bion’s response was veiled but telling: “A number of state and federal programs exist to provide support for the creation of jobs, generation of renewable energy and the improvement to agricultural infrastructure and markets. Those are public programs available to entities that meet their eligibility requirements and Bion will seek to avail itself of those programs…” Obviously, Bion wants to cash in on government subsidies that promote corn and ethanol production and the 72,000 beef cattle would be a profitable byproduct of the ethanol production.

With government monies focused on buzz words like “sustainable,” we must start to define what real food means to us. It must nourish our bodies and treat animals with dignity, but also give a decent wage to farmers and reinvest money into rural America in long-term and meaningful ways. We have to rethink what true sustainability is and focus on helping rural economies, but this cannot be done without rethinking government policies that favor corn and ethanol.

Photo: BugMan50

9 thoughts on “72,000-Cow CAFO: Revitalizing Rural New York, or Ousting Small Farms?

  1. There is no shortage of beef in this country so the real question should be: How many farms will this project put out of business and which farms are most likely to put out of business if this giant feedlot is built?. How many small slaughterhouses will this put out of business? Large operations like this one employ far fewer people per unit of meat produced and tend to have poor working conditions. Just look at similar sized facilities in the south or midwest to see what happens in communities when these things are built. Why are so many of the touted ‘new jobs’ in big slaughter houses held by illegal aliens? It’s because they have poor pay and bad working conditions. If you take away the tax breaks and carbon credits this thing could not possibly cash flow so why build it. Those who profit from it and our money will both be long gone when this operation packs up and move on to destroy another community leaving us with the bill for cleaning up the mess they made.

  2. From Bion’s Website, information for investors:

    “share resources and infrastructure, substantially reduce transportation inefficiencies and fuel costs, generate renewable energy from the waste streams for use in the Project, and greatly improve profit margins for all partners. Products will be produced in an environmentally friendly manner with a substantially reduced carbon footprint, creating branding opportunities that appeal to growing consumer demand for green products.

    Bion can develop the environmentally sustainable large scale livestock operations needed to efficiently integrate these activities in locations that significantly improve economics but where it otherwise would be impossible to obtain a permit. Greenfield Projects can be developed close to either consumer or feedstock markets or new livestock herds can be brought to existing biofuel or food processing operations, in order to maximize economic efficiency and competitive advantages.”

    The only “green” aspect of the proposed New York project is the manure-to-biogas segment, which produces no net renewable energy … only the energy required by the project itself. It would appear that the greatest advantage of these projects is in the relaxed permitting for the livestock operations. Very curious.

  3. Excellent point. We do need to define what sustainable (and real food) means, at least at the consumer level. Closed loops like that don’t respect the land, the people, the animals or the earth. They are based on subsidies, and industrial farming practices that are anything but Thanks for the great reporting.

  4. Klaas:
    Thank you so much for your comment. Those are all great questions. NYS state is in a big transition right now. Traditional dairy farms are closing. We still produce the same amount of milk though, just in large industrial farms.
    Maybe this would turn NYS into a big factory system. Really lessons the power of “local” no?
    I agree about what happens when these projects leave. There was a similar problem with a Cargill plant in Wilkes Barre PA where a lot of tax breaks were given and once they expired the plant left leaving the town with a lot of unemployed plant workers which ended up costing them lots of money in social services.

  5. David,
    You are so right! We also have to debunk the myth that ethanol is “green.” We need to arm ourselves against this trend toward “greener” CAFOs.
    I also wonder what sort of “relaxed” regulations they are seeking. There were many points I could have added, one is the amount of anti-biotics that are needed in such crowded conditions.

  6. Heather! I am glad that you agree. As a producer I know how much investment goes into making a change toward sustainable practices. If big AG sees more benefit in seeming sustainable to get subsidies or consumer demand they will. We must arm ourselves!

  7. Well written, well said. The real problem comes from the words we have choosen as small farmers and food producers to discribe our selves and how we produce our products. If you would take time to diesect their words,you would find that they are our words. We trap ourselves by using words that the corp. food people can use also. Organic, is the one word they cannot use, it is protected, it is legally defined and it means all the things small farmer, both local and regional all can support. And the real beauty is large corp food can not use our word. ORGANIC

  8. Hi Ulla,

    Well done article. I also like the comments.

    I’m a beef producer in NY State. Personally, the more I think about Bion’s plan the less I like it.

    Mostly I see bad things from
    1. the inevitable large taxpayer subsidies for this CAFO
    2. damage to local producers by an attempt to create faux “local sustainable beef” that competes on price with producers of true local sustainable beef.
    3. damage to an already fragile and shrinking network of small slaughterhouses, without which existing beef producers will have even more difficulty accessing processing services.
    4. the very dubious energy ‘sustainability’
    5. the working conditions for people in this type of plant
    6. animal welfare issues inevitable in a huge CAFO
    7. the air and water pollution issues (how close to Lake Ontario?)
    8. human health issues from beef which is less healthy in terms of fat, and more likely to carry high risk pathogens, antibiotics, and hormones

    Will this CAFO help create a cow-calf infrastructure that can actually help provide calves for sustainable production? Even if it did, I don’t think this potential cow calf infrastructure could outweigh all the very serious negatives.

    Ken Jaffe
    Slope Farms
    Meredith, NY