Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Role of Natural Gas in Local Agroecosystems

On a drive to Middlefield, NY one is struck by the picturesque scenery. The tranquil rolling hills and lush valley floor are dotted with upper-end houses. Scattered among the houses are the remnants of the valley’s agricultural farming history. According to historical accounts, agriculture has always been the backbone of this community.  However, the once agricultural land has been subdivided to locate the houses bought by urbanites looking for rural refuge; the fertile valley for the most part now lies fallow. Further along the drive, a marked entrance announces the location of the Brewery Ommegang. Despite the peculiarity of the location of the brewery, local residents have embraced it as a part of the community. As a large truck exits the brewery grounds one is quickly reminded that a brewery is an industrial activity; a strong testament that the region supports multiple land use.
A few miles up from the Brewery is one of the surviving farms in the valley; The Cooperstown Holstein Corporation (CHC) farm. The farm represents the changing aspects of rural agriculture; the need for diversity.  Peter Huntington, one of the farm’s founders had a vision for a self-sustained and energy efficient farm that maximized long term stability; a model of an agroecosystem farm management strategy; a strategy that blurs the distinction between the farm’s ecosystem and the natural ecosystems.
Jennifer Huntington, the farms’ current steward is a well-respected, hardworking and extremely knowledgeable farmer. She walks in the footsteps of her father. Next to the CHC’s milking barn and animal barn is a Methane Digester and a biogas fueled Cogeneration system. The systems which once produced energy for both the farm and the nearby County Office building, now sit silent, enveloped in a film of dust.  Frozen in a time when agriculture intersected the community. Now the silence is eerily similar to the farms and barns down the road which sit empty and unused.
Besides the methane digestor/CoGen system, the farm presses locally grown canola seeds for bio-diesel, and utilizes a seed dryer to save seeds that would otherwise been ruined by high moisture content.  Developing this kind of agroecosystem takes capital which most farmers lack. So, when landmen knocked on the farmer’s doors, farmers saw natural gas development as a viable avenue to maximize their farm’s efficiency.
However, the farmer’s vision differed from their neighbors who saw natural gas development as an infringement on their rural lifestyle by a vilified industry.  When the gas development discussion reached the Middlefield Town Board, the farmers were largely missing from the town hall; they were out busy working on their farms. The Town Board listened to about 30 minutes of information supporting gas development and spent even less time listening to the farmers. What the board did hear was hours of public sentiment against natural gas development and within a short time, the Town enacted a ban against natural gas development activities.
For farmers like Jennifer Huntington who still get up every morning to milk their cows, ensuring that their neighbors have cream for their morning cups of coffee, daily routines have not changed. What has changed is how they are now perceived; they have been demonized by those opposed to local natural gas development and their motives have been questioned. The explanation as to how something that started off as simple desire to improve a farm’s sustainability has turned into something divisive is as elusive as the reason why a community would turn on their local farmers.

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