There has been much news reported lately about the deepening plight of dairy farmers. The price of milk has sagged, and the cost of producing milk is exceeding the prices the farmers are getting for it. We hear there are fewer farmers and fewer cows, but milk production continues to improve. It is particularly tough for small farms. News reports talk about farmers falling further and further behind in paying their mounting debts. This is not the first time in our lives we have heard about that kind of upside down cost/ income ratio in dairy farming. We have heard the same news periodically over the decades.
Last year I asked someone, who is very familiar with the wind power politics and pressures playing out in the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario area, to explain to me what were the local driving forces that keep wind farm proposals alive in the face of such vehement opposition to them. Her reply, “Make no mistake – — it’s all about the farmers.”
If you have been following the wind power controversy at all, you are fully aware that one of the often used claims for the side benefits of wind power is that it is a “good way to help the struggling farmer stay in the black and stay on the land.”
Let us take a real hard look at that claim.
Very few people are reluctant to criticize so-called “corporate welfare” – all the subsidies, tax breaks, government contracts, research grants, and other incentives, bailouts and rescues of various sorts that get paid to large private corporations from federal tax dollars. But far fewer people are comfortable taking shots at “agricultural welfare.” Farmers have been getting all kinds of subsidies and price supports for many decades, and they have become dependent on government support.
We understand all the baggage. We know agriculture and farmers rank high in the American ethos. We know the “family farm” is presented as an icon of all that is good and wholesome. Yet, in every other business venture improving the scale and efficiency of an operation is a key to success; nowhere else is small and inefficient valued. Dairy farmers have countered by diversifying – selling their cows, taking other jobs to supplement income, focusing on haying, beginning a vineyard and other strategies. The wind development companies understand the farmer’s strategy to diversify. They know that getting farmers to agree to have the turbines on their property is an easy sell. They know the farmers will sign the agreements with little convincing. They know the appeal of dollars to the farmers trumps their concern for historic and scenic preservation, or any doubt the farmers might have regarding the questionable effectiveness in actually slowing climate change, disruption caused by protracted construction, or any general concern about destroying the serene and bucolic nature of the surrounding area. The farming community is hurting economically and commercial wind developers understand perfectly how to exploit that situation.
So you have a perfect storm of three forces coming together from completely different directions but all meeting at the same place: 1) political impetus for addressing climate change at the national and state levels, 2) wind power development companies who need open land that they can “rent” cheaply, and 3) farmers desperate for another source of income.
Add to this mix the historic attitude often spoken by farmers that farmers can do “whatever they want” with their land. They have always bitterly opposed any form of zoning restrictions – it’s part of their DNA! That’s a tough combination of forces to fight by appealing to the need for scenic preservation, endangered species preservation, degraded property values, or unproved health consequences of low frequency sound propagation.
Nothing against farmers… But is it a crime (or at least heresy) to consider the possibility that government interference (subsides and supports) in agricultural markets have inhibited a natural process in economic markets – the failure of weak inefficient operations? Or that too much of our rural land is devoted to agriculture? The problem with the price of milk is that there is too much milk on the market, in spite of fewer farms and fewer cows.
This suggests there are still too many farms and too many cows. If dairy farming isn’t profitable or has been only a break even situation for a lot of dairy farmers for several decades, then maybe it is time to cut the cord and allow agricultural markets more freedom. Allow farms that would fail to fail, and other more profitable farms to acquire the land and increase their efficiency while reducing overall milk production.
We freely criticize General Motors for going on and on building cars that nobody is buying. Yet it seems to be off-limits to criticize farmers for producing too much milk for too few buyers – and even more off-limits to suggest that the milk supply and the number of those who produce it should shrink.
I guess you wouldn’t win too many local elections in rural towns by saying such things. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true. I’m reminded of a 60-Minutes report years ago on agricultural price supports where a successful farmer complained that he was in competition with his neighboring farmers and that if he does a better job he should be allowed to win. But no – the government steps in and supports failure and doesn’t allow him the advantage of acquiring other failing farms and improving his operation. Successful farmers don’t need price supports, poor farm managers do.
In any case, it is clear that here in New York existing wind farms and those that are proposed may exemplify more of the same good intentions by government, but they are policies and subsidies that are destined to follow the same path as past agricultural support policies – failure. They are sold as rescue life lines to the farmers who host them. The local political decisions that allow the wind farms to be built are driven primarily by agricultural influence and interests. Without cooperating large landowners – mostly farmers – wind power developers who are oblivious to general community quality-of-life issues would get nowhere.
The Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River is a scenic and recreational destination. We are not the corn belt of the Midwest and we are not the ranch country of remote west Texas. Yet when you get a mile or two inland on either side of the river, many landowners seem to conveniently forget that fact. When it comes to locating highly intrusive, very imposing, very large-scale wind power projects, a very narrow form of agriculture-based pressure skews the whole decision-making process in a greatly unbalanced way.
And let’s zero in on this matter right in Cape Vincent. Even if you still insist that wind power translates into a legitimate form of farm aid, are we really even talking about real farmers in most cases?
Take the St. Lawrence (Acciona) Wind Project. How many lease holders have working farms? Seven or eight by most estimates. Of the thirty or so landowners who have leases with Acciona, the majority of those landowners are not active farmers.
How do you weigh the benefits to those thirty landowners compared to the hundreds of other property owners whose property value will diminish greatly as a result of wind turbines becoming the dominant signature feature of the Town?
Highly controversial wind power siting decisions should not be based on some purpose extraneous to the matter of climate change. Policies regarding climate change should not be driven by the financial needs of the handful of farmers who are a small percentage of the affected population in the locales where wind farms are being considered.
The nature and character of recreational and scenic jewels like the Thousand Islands involves many more “stakeholders” (present and future) than the relatively small number of farmers who are exerting an entirely disproportionate influence on the process in furtherance of only their own narrow interest.
A JLL reader.
Posted by RWiley