Appalachian Basin

Farming and Natural Gas: Sustaining Our Land

When the phone rang a few weeks ago and a reporter was on the other end, asking to interview me about natural gas production and our lease, I was somewhat prepared.  Three years ago we signed a lease, along with other excited farmers in our community.  Prior to signing the lease, we talked to neighbors and experts.  My husband went to a local meeting where attorneys and officials from the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation made presentations and answered questions to educate landowners about the legal and environmental impacts of leases and natural gas production.  It was an exciting time in Schoharie County.  As with most opportunities of good fortune, it seemed too good to be true and when a couple of years passed without activity, the whole scenario was relegated to the background of my consciousness.

Then signs began cropping up on people’s lawns. They were ominously black and red with a foreboding warning.    On occasion I spotted signs from the “other side” as well.   I instinctively liked them better.  They were green, and stated brightly that those landowners were “friends” of natural gas.

The signs were not enough to rattle my brain into doing further research. That came one day while I was sitting in the office of our farm based organic feed business.  One of our customers showed up.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I find he is a lobbyist for anti-development groups.  I’m not sure how the subject of gas drilling came up, but when it did, our customer became terribly excited.  He began to speak loudly and gesticulate wildly about the certain doom on the horizon if the moratorium was lifted.  I just smiled sweetly, recalling the nice green signs I had seen and responded that I was a “friend of natural gas”.  That prompted our customer, we’ll call him Bill, to become concerned about my apparent ignorance, and with that he rattled off some dire details, which I’m sure he thought would quickly dash my naiveté and jolt me into the reality of the “nightmare” I had unleashed by signing a gas lease.  I politely excused myself as soon as I could.  I by no means had become an expert but after my conversation with Bill, I did find that I could still be a friend of natural gas.

The second event that prepared me for the reporter’s call took place soon after my encounter with Bill.  I found myself reunited with a woman that I worked with when I moved to Schoharie County, twenty years ago.  At the time I was working as a soil technician for the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS). She worked in the office next door, at the USDA’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.  She is also the wife of a local dairy farmer, her name is Debbie.  During our conversation, a tentative question soon came: “Do you have a gas lease?”  I hesitated before answering in the affirmative.  Relief instantly appeared on Debbie’s face.  Word was passed and before long, there was a group of enthusiastic landowners discussing the issue.  I shared what I had learned in my research.  Debbie got so excited about my enthusiastic support of gas drilling that she exclaimed to the others, “We have a leader!”  Of course its understandable Debbie was excited. A few weeks before, she had gone to a meeting expecting to hear a balanced discussion.  Soon after arriving she discovered it was more of an anti-development rally.  “They were really angry”, Debbie told me, with a fair degree of surprise in her voice.

So, when the reporter called, I was ready.  I had heard the anti ravings of Bill and others.  I researched the facts.  I talked to local farmers and landowners.  I thought long and hard about the whole situation.

The reporter was tentative and when he realized we were operating a certified organic farm he was shocked.  He said he thought the pro and con groups were divided along defined political lines, like Republicans and Democrats.

In our discussion I noted the benefit of developing a clean energy source that would make us less dependent on foreign oil.  I suggested it would bring jobs to the area at a time of high unemployment (which in good times was relatively economically depressed).  I inquired what the reporter knew about hydraulic fracturing. He admitted he knew little.  I gave him as many facts as I could.  I emphasized the high taxes farmers pay, how hard they work, only to find themselves deep in debt, sometimes forced into mortgaging generational family farms.  I noted how wonderful it would be if farmers could benefit from a commodity beneath their land; one that could be extracted while fields could still be worked, all while helping the local economy and preserving an agrarian based community.  I don’t think the reporter was persuaded.  In the end, he used some quotes, but overall, the piece was plagued with emotional controversy and devoid of pertinent facts.

I have not always been a farmer, but my husband has.  When urban pressure forced him to sell what land he had left in New Hampshire, I convinced him to come to upstate NY.  He was ecstatic to see the thriving agricultural community in Schoharie when we came here over twenty years ago.  Since that time we have attempted several farm based businesses. For many years we had a large flock of sheep, but ended up liquidating when the cost of shearing them surpassed the price of wool.  We had a herd of dairy cows as well.  I never really embraced the lifestyle so we moved on from that endeavor too.

Farming life is difficult. To survive, you must keep the land productive and pay high taxes on large tracts of land. With this in mind we continued looking for a niche.  The niche we found was organic farming.  Organic farming is insulated from the pressure of large factory farms that are taking over food production.  By virtue of organic practices, it tends to be a small operation, suited perfectly to the scale of a family farm.   We grow organic hay on our certified land, and buy organic grain, which we mill into mixes and deliver to organic farms that are producing milk, eggs and meat.

There is nothing in natural gas production that conflicts with our organic certification or practices.  In fact, I am hard pressed to see how utilizing the fertility of the space beneath our fields conflicts with being good stewards of the land above.  I like to be consistent and rational, and no matter which way I look at this, it remains a win-win, positive event.  Clean energy from below, crops above.

At SCS I became intimately familiar with farming.  It was here that I learned about conservation and preservation.  Conservationists advocate the wise use of resources in accordance with good stewardship, to enhance future sustainability.  Preservationists seek to maintain the status quo by resisting development in order to preserve the resource.  As far as I can tell, conservation is based upon common sense and pragmatism; preservation seems to rise out of a quirky, romantic idealism.  Farmers are very practical people and as such, tend to be conservationists.  We should be grateful for that.  Idealists would never be able to persevere in the grueling reality of daily farm life and no one conserves and cares for their land like a farmer.

My husband and I love our land as only farmers can.  I’m not sure folks that never farmed can understand this love.  Today, in our organic feed business, we serve a multitude of organic farmers struggling to maintain the agrarian way of life in an increasingly hostile economic and social environment.  Farmers are not going to compromise the good of their land for a fast profit.  They take their responsibility as stewards of the land seriously. It seems clear that the possible boon that natural gas production might bring to our rural communities is a godsend and that farmers are the best decision makers to be overseeing this process.

Since farmers are the large landowners in most rural counties, it is farmers that have been caught in the middle of this controversy.  Sadly, it has pitted small land owners against farmers in some places.  After the interview, the reporter asked “You probably wouldn’t want us to put your picture in the paper.“  I had to laugh.  I asked him if people were really scared to be seen as natural gas advocates. From my perspective, this hostility is born, not in facts or truth, but in an emotional campaign fueled by prejudice and fear.

There is a joke about a lawyer, a doctor and a farmer discussing what they would do if they won the Mega Millions lottery.  The lawyer declares he would build a mansion in the Bahamas.  The doctor decides he would buy himself a private jet to travel around the world.  After a little thought the farmer announces, “I guess I would just keep farming until it was all gone.”  Truth be told, I believe if the farmers in this county hit the “lotto” with a lucrative gas well, they’d pay their bills, buy new equipment, and just keep on farming.


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