What happens when gas drilling and organic agriculture collide? This series considers some of the issues. Posts are drawn from a 3-part series originally published in New York Organic News (NOFA-NY) in 2012. Research was supported with a grant from SEJ's Fund for Environmental Journalism.
When Carol French signed a gas lease she never dreamed that half a dozen years later she’d be warning other farmers to think twice. French, a dairy farmer in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, lives in the midst of the drill zone. The last time she counted, there were nine active wells located within a mile of her farm.
|photo by Frank Finan|
Carolyn Knapp, an organic dairy farmer, lives just a couple miles away. Six years ago she was concerned that signing a lease might affect her organic status. It didn’t. Now, with a handful of wells drilled nearby, she worries about other ways that gas drilling and exploration could impact her operation.
The problem: gas leases do not protect farmland. Once those leases are signed, say Knapp and French, farmers lose control over their land. Gas companies decide where to place access roads, well pads, pipelines and compressors – and that can interrupt normal farming activities.
One of French’s neighbors ended up with a well pad sited behind his barn, effectively cutting off easy access to the fields and pasture. The farmer is earning royalties, French said – about $400/month. But he sold his cows because the drilling operations made it too hard to keep on farming. Knapp, who integrates intensive grazing into her dairy operation, said drillers planned to dig a 20-acre water impoundment right in the middle of her rotational grazing system.
Agricultural land is hit particularly hard; research shows that in the Marcellus, farmland makes up about 62 percent of the acreage affected by drilling. And when Penn State professor Tim Kelsey surveyed Bradford and Tioga counties in PA, his data showed that the number of wells in an area has an impact on farming. Areas with 150 or more gas wells lost 19 percent of their dairy herd; areas with no wells experienced only a 1 percent loss.
He doesn’t have an exact number, but Kelsey says there is no doubt that dairy farmers are quitting because of drilling. Even if their own farms are not impacted, farmers face other challenges. Landowners who used to lease fields to farmers are now renting their land for drilling-related uses such as equipment storage and water withdrawal sites. Large impoundments take land out of production, and crop yields are down in reclaimed pipeline right-of-ways. Add to that the scarcity of sawdust for bedding (it’s mixed with drill cuttings before they’re trucked to landfills) and the recent addition of an 8-cent-per- hundredweight surcharge for hauling milk (gas companies pay higher wages for those with CDL licenses) and it’s clear that the Marcellus boom is a bust for some farmers.