Telling Our Side of the Story: Dairy Organizations, Local Farmers Team Up to Educate About Environmental Stewardship on Dairy Farms

Beth Meyer

Beth Meyer
Beth Meyer

The author is Director of Consumer Confidence at the American Dairy Association based in Syracuse, N.Y.

Nestled in the heart of upstate New York, Owasco Lake is located in one of the largest dairy-producing counties in the region. And, like many agricultural areas throughout the country, farmers in the watershed have been criticized by lakefront property owners and environmentalists, looking to identify the source of an increasing number of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) appearing during the summer months. The Department of Environmental Conservation is investigating the problem, but recognizes that there are likely many causes and factors that have contributed to water quality issues in the lake.

Concern over the water quality in Owasco Lake made headlines in the local media in 2016, and was featured on the agenda for several county-wide committee meetings. Agriculture, especially large dairy farms, was often cited as being the main source of nutrient contribution to the local lakes and streams. While farmers in and around the watershed had been active in several ways – including sitting on local planning committees for manure guidelines – they decided it was time for a more comprehensive and aggressive approach.

That’s why, earlier this year, those dairy farmers asked their farm organizations to pool their collective resources to assist them in building a better dialogue among community leaders. Efforts began with a series of editorial letters (other letters may be found here and here) with a common theme of working together as a community. Farm Bureau also organized an editorial board meeting in January with the Auburn Citizen where farmers discussed issues surrounding Owasco Lake and the environment with newspaper leadership and reporters.

But it was decided a broader, innovative approach was called for. The organizations – including American Dairy Association North East (the local dairy checkoff), New York Farm Bureau, New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, mobilized to begin a multi-faceted educational campaign to increase awareness and shift public perception regarding farming management practices in the Owasco Lake watershed. Working in conjunction with local supporters, including Cayuga County Cooperative Extension, Cayuga County Soil & Water District and Cornell’s Pro-Dairy, Partners for Healthy Watersheds was launched.

The coalition adopted the following mission statement: Partners for Healthy Watersheds advocates for environmentally sustainable and economically feasible nutrient management solutions in local watersheds, by presenting practical solutions and educating consumers about best water quality management practices. Founded by organizations representing New York dairy farmers, the group looks to convene a cross-section of like-minded community residents, who base decisions and strategy on sound science.

Phosphorus Ad
The campaign kicked off with this ad on potential sources of phosphorus in the water and steps both consumers and farmers can take to reduce these inputs.

As part of the overall effort, the group created a series of full-page color ads in the local newspaper (the Auburn Citizen) and 30-second radio spots highlighting farm practices like cover crops and buffer strips that help reduce runoff and protect area water bodies and streams. They also emphasized technology happening on farms, stressed the importance of manure as a natural fertilizer, and looked at ways everyone in the community can help prevent phosphorous from entering Owasco Lake. The ads began in early March, to lay the groundwork well in advance of spring planting.

The advertisements are funded through dairy farmer checkoff dollars. “We’re looking at this as a pilot project,” says ADA North East CEO Rick Naczi. “Concerns and misunderstanding about agriculture’s impact on the environment aren’t limited to the Owasco Lake watershed. Our plan is to take the assets we’ve developed here, and modify them to use pro-actively in other areas throughout our six-state marketing region.”

The groups’ next step featured two “Community Conversations” held in April, to help the public better understand some of the practices farmers would be employing the month during the upcoming planning season. Moderated by Pro-Dairy’s Karl Czymmek, the two sessions featured dairy farmers and a CAFO planner and allowed regulated farms an opportunity to showcase the diverse practices each of them employed. This included discussions about CAFO plans, nutrient storage and management, and different environmental practices that aim to improve water quality. At the same time, the public was able to ask questions and share their concerns as well. Everyone saw the open dialogue as a positive step in helping the community get an accurate picture of the issues at hand (see Auburn Citizen story . Topics for future forums are currently being discussed.

Farmers Forum Poster
Farmers Forum Poster

Cayuga County Farm Bureau also arranged for the local cable TV news station (Spectrum news, formerly Time Warner Cable) to feature Jason Burroughs of Aurora Ridge Dairy, Aurora, New York, demonstrating how his farm is using cover crops and the many advantages they have for soil health and environmental management. The segment aired repeatedly in April and is available for viewing on the Spectrum News Central New York website.

Farm tours remain an important part of the public outreach strategy. New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC) facilitated a “Twilight Tour” for local legislators and interested parties to help them see for their own eyes what one farm in the watershed is doing. Billed as an opportunity to get a firsthand look. The evening consisted of a bus tour through the fields and across the land offering the opportunity to view a variety of conservation practices. Following the tour, a panel discussion with farmers and industry professionals was held where questions were answered and issues discussed.

While the Partners for Healthy Watersheds organizations provide strategic direction and public relations support, local dairy farmers continue their efforts at the grassroots level to influence and affect change. Farmers recognized the need for a community approach to finding solutions for the concerns in Cayuga County. Traditionally, the Cayuga County Extension and Soil & Water offices have been the voice in the room for agriculture at many county-wide meetings. Farmers had participated in both public forums on manure application concerns as well as a steering committee on developing county-wide manure guidelines to be sure they aligned with current CAFO regulations that medium and large dairies must meet already. Though a partnership with Northeast Dairy Producers Association’s (NEDPA_ environmental attorney and input from a local CAFO planner, the farmer representatives were able to bring valuable and pertinent information to the county-wide initiative. The farmers’ voice in the process is valuable to both county officials and the agriculture community. Area farmers have since volunteered to serve on other county-wide work groups and/or committees.

To follow the community outreach, visit the Partners for Healthy Watersheds Facebook page).
Possible pull-out box or sidebar:
The Partners for Healthy Watersheds coalition was formed to educate consumers on nutrient management and watershed issues.
• Highlight that farmers are doing their share to protect local water sources
o Agriculture makes up only a small portion of nutrient sources for the lake
o Farmers are held to a higher standard than residential areas
• Empower water consumers to ask questions and look at the unbiased facts
o The causes of algal blooms are not fully understood

A series of ads have run in the Sunday edition of the Auburn Citizen addressed the following topics:
• Sources of Phosphorus in Owasco Lake
• Benefits of Cover Crops
• Managing Manure
• Farming Technology Used for Manure Spreading
• Benefits of Filter Strips