Monday, March 11, 2013

Fracking the Farm Part 2: Losing Dairy to Drilling

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.


  1. I find it unbelievable that any organic farmer would consent to having drills on their land. It shows a glaring ignorance on the part of any organic farmer who consents to do so, and brings into question their commitment to maintaining organic standards.

    To sell out for a measly $400 per month is more than despicable and points to greed rather than need. I have no compassion for any organic farmer whose land becomes poisoned, but I do have concern for their neighbors who did not consent, but now have to face the possibility of poisoned water and air and the continued destruction of their environment.

    There are much more important things than individuals picking up a few bucks. It shows shallowness and a lack of concern for their neighbors and community. It is a glaring example of our nation's failed policy of individualism which smacks of egoism and arrogance.

  2. More worrisome - to organic farmers - is when their neighbors lease or have a well, and they lose the use of their land, or their market because people boycott "anything grown in that area" whether it's 1/4 mile away or on the other side of town.

  3. Pretty heavy criticism, Doran. Please remember that many farmers are not making proactive decisions to lease, but, rather, looking to continue farming on land that they bought or leased for farming that ALREADY had gas leases. Much of NYS farmland has had gas leases on it for decades. Please consider that, for some farmland, the decision to lease was made by someone no longer alive, back in the 20s. The situation is more complex than an easy-blame strategy suggests. A NYS-wide ban on drilling will protect us all. Best to waste no time blaming or demonizing others, and just work to ban fracking in NYS.

  4. joanne cipolla-dennisMarch 11, 2013 at 11:27 PM

    while I have the utmost respect for both farmers whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, and understand their serious and unwanted position. I ask them each how they can continue to sell their products to market especially certifying them organic? I fully understand what they have lost,,it is unconscionable to know how they were set up for certain failure as farmers but there is a point that one must say to themselves."no matter what I have lost and what hardship I face I cannot and will not sell products that can be unsafe for humans" I am not judging them..I am simply asking why would they continue to expose the rest of us to food marked organic when considering what we know about air quality near drill pads how can it be considered safe? and "organic"? when I pay for organic food I dont want even the possibility it has been altered in any way. with toxic chemicals KNOWN in drill zones.I sincerely hope that they both move and soon..because what we know happens to people around drill pads will happen to them too..they will be sick and we will lose two more valuable people who never asked to be used this way. PLEASE get out of that area of PA..its lost...we want and need farmers here in NYS..these farmers helped to protect NYS we should help them find a new start here. I know many people have lost faith in the "organic" stamp..seems its now a deal with it really organic, meaning unaltered, safe, healthy food not grown with harmful chemicals..or is it organic the new less harmful than conventional because we can use acceptable chemistry cause industry got them to alter the regs to suit them? HMM..know your farmers, where they live and how and what they use to grow your food..or do it yourself..and work toward global ban from a safe state. I wish them both a better life and thank them for their courage and their MANY trips to NYS

    1. We need to have a way to insure that our food is indeed safe. The question is: how? What would you tell an urban gardener moving into Detroit, where the center of the city is abandoned and former developed land is being converted to urban farms? Some of these gardeners grow using organic methods, and they have taken precautions to put barriers in place so heavy metals and other soil contaminants are not taken up by the plants (yes, there are ways of doing that). But they cannot control the air currents, nor the drift of industrialization that may or may not blow in their direction.

      What, then, about an organic farmer in Susquehanna County who is growing food a mile away from the nearest well and has no impacts? Do you boycott that farmer because he is in the "drill zone"? And if so, where is it safe?

      Instead of demonizing people who are trying to keep land in production (and not in drilling) - we need to put all that anger & energy into getting our elected leaders to think about where the future of our food is headed.