Written by Jackie Root in OPED in Stargazette.com
The Guest Viewpoint “Yogurt Industry, fracking don’t mix” portrayed a Pennsylvania dairy industry on the verge of ruin because of shale gas development, but it makes assumptions based on numbers that do not match the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports cited.
I live in Tioga County, Pa., where 693 Marcellus wells were drilled from 2008-11; changes in the agriculture community are very apparent and mostly positive, at least from what I see. The numbers cited by Sandra Steingraber and Michelle Bamberger caused me to seek out the same statistical reports so that my assessment would be more than just anecdotal.
My husband and I are farmers. He operated a commercial dairy from 1976 to 2009, which I joined in 1981. At present, we farm 400 acres with Hereford cattle and Morgan horses. Our decision to sell the dairy herd in 2009 was based on several factors, including dairy prices that often do not meet the cost of production; cost and availability of labor; 35 years of milking twice a day on the same set of knees; and children who are not interested in dairy farming. Now, instead of milk, we sell beef cattle and hay. We still buy feed, seed, fertilizer and machinery; in fact, farmers have a long tradition of pouring money they receive back into the local economies.
Around us other “dairy” farms have expanded for the next generation, paid off debt, established retirement accounts, purchased newer or safer equipment, updated farm buildings and farmhouses, went on vacation or took a chance on an off-farm job to only farm part-time.
Steingraber and Bamberger asserted that fracking is an obstacle to dairy farmers and has caused an 18.7 percent decline in cow numbers as well as an 18.5 percent decline in milk production per cow in the counties where 150 or more unconventional wells were hydraulically fractured in Pennsylvania. I compiled NASS data on dairy cow inventories and milk production from 2004 to 2012 for Bradford, Tioga, Susquehanna, Somerset, Lancaster, Franklin, Lebanon and Wayne counties.
The most noticeable discrepancy, from 2004 to 2011, milk production per cow actually increased in every county including those in which more than 150 wells were completed. The reports do show that dairy cow numbers have declined in those same counties but the decline has been steady since at least 2004. The facts show what every dairy producer already knows: Cow numbers are decreasing and production per cow continues to rise due to increases in efficiency.
The effects of natural gas drilling and completion will not drive farmers away; it will supplement their incomes and allow agriculture to thrive. The development is not without issues in Pennsylvania, and we are working through it. We are not a wasteland and our agriculture industry continues to produce the safest food in the world.
Root is president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners.