Critics of the Bion Environmental Services Project Weigh In
Op Ed: Bion Facility is Risky Venture for the North Country
In light of the immense scale of Bion Environmental Services proposed livestock facility in Ogdensburg, I am writing to share research findings and other observations that should give all of us pause before embracing this form of economic development for the North Country.
The 84,000 head beef cattle feeding operation proposed by Bion would be the kind of investor-owned, very-large-scale livestock production facility that has often resulted in negative economic and social impacts on rural communities. Several of the states that have enabled investor-owned livestock feeding operations of various types have regretted the decision and attempted to reverse it. For example, North Carolina passed a moratorium on large-scale swine operations after these resulted both in little economic gain and severe environmental and social disruptions.
Clearly Bion has learned from these earlier experiences and proposes significant investment in environmental technologies. However the sheer scale of the project, unheard of in the Northeast, makes it more likely for a catastrophic outcome if what the sociologist Charles Perrow labels the "normal accidents" that are inherent risks of industrial facilities occur. The hog facilities in North Carolina took significant precautions against flooding, but their developers did not anticipate a storm the size and type of Hurricane Floyd. As a result, manure lagoons were over-topped and rural areas were littered with the corpses of drowned poultry and swine. While Bion is proposing a different type of manure management system, it will still be subject to severe weather events.
I am a sociologist who studies agriculture and agricultural policy. Some of my research has focused on the links between the health of rural communities and the characteristics of the farms around them. Major farming areas have a long history of skepticism toward large-scale, investor-owned livestock operations. The Midwestern states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri all put bans on corporate farming in the seventies and early eighties. And in one study I found that agriculture-dependent areas with such bans have less poverty and higher personal income than agriculture-dependent areas without the bans. Although recent court rulings have called the constitutionality of such laws into question, the point remains that such skepticism has proven wise.
Also, the promises of jobs and other economic benefits made by the developers of these facilities have often not been fulfilled. For example, the trend in larger scale agricultural production is to make arrangements with labor contractors to import labor from Mexico and Central America. Such labor can be paid very low wages, in part because their tenuous position in this country makes such workers difficult to organize into unions and they tend to not complain even about low pay and bad working conditions. In this way agri-food corporations create jobs that current U.S. resident-workers "do not want." However, it is more accurate to describe such jobs as "not intended or designed" for U.S. resident-workers. It is likely that Bion will import workers to keep down labor costs, since even some of the family dairy operations in our area use imported labor, and the largest of these are dwarfed in size by the proposed Bion facility.
Family owned and operated farming operations have proven to be the most durable and sustainable system for organizing agricultural production. Family owned and operated farming operations, even when larger in scale, tend to keep more of the profits they earn in the communities in which they operate. Also for family-owned and operated farms, how profits are distributed across workers, managers and owners can be less important and more equitable because the three roles often reside in one person; or workers, managers and owners live in the same household. And if the owner-operators live or were raised in the community in which they farm, they tend to be part of the social and community fabric. As such they potentially require less formal state regulations because they will be influenced by social norms and local expectations. This will not be the case for the Bion owners.
Significantly adding to the fed-cattle inventory in St. Lawrence County or the North Country region is a good idea. But a much better way would be by helping current cow-calf operators to feed their cattle here, and by helping new operators find the capital needed to raise and feed local cattle-- not by shipping in live feeder cattle, feeding them here and shipping them out to low end markets on the East Coast. The latter production scheme makes local rural residents incur many of the risks, while shareholders and consumers in urban areas reap the benefits. In contrast, a more local production regime would result in a more dispersed distribution of economic benefits that would add value to our agricultural economy. It would also have environmental and social benefits. What we need to gain these benefits is to have Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, local universities as well as our local governments and civil society groups assist North Country producers to organize to produce, process, package and market to high end markets on the East Coast. Marketing and distribution in conjunction with production are more profitable than production alone; and the higher end markets such as "natural", "grass-fed" and "organic" are where the most growth currently resides in agricultural consumer markets.
To summarize, research evidence and other communities' experiences with large-scale corporate livestock operations argue strongly against permitting this type of development in St. Lawrence County. I urge local government officials and residents to thoroughly and publicly examine this proposal. At a minimum we need to have public hearings about the proposed Bion facility, the adequacy of its environmental protection systems, and the assumptions on which its assertions of a safe and productive operation are based. I urge local government officials and residents to voice their concerns and opinions on this proposal.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Position Paper: Bion Working Group
The Bion Working Group first convened in July, 2007 over questions we had about a rough proposal for an ethanol plant combined with a large feedlot operation. There were a number of initial concerns that triggered the group, but the most obvious was the addition of 84,000 cattle to the 39-56,000 cattle (estimates vary) currently in the county.
When we started looking at the project, we found that Bion had floated a number of proposals that differed in the number of cattle, amount of corn used and amount of ethanol produced.
As the concentration of animals on farms has increased, the handling of manure has become increasingly complex. When our traditional small farms produced much of their own feed, manure was recycled in a fairly tight loop: Farmers transported corn, silage and hay from the fields to the barn and manure was transported back to the fields as fertilizer. In summer months, cows grazed in the fields and much of the manure was left there. With newer mid-sized dairy operations, it is no longer practical to raise all the feed on farm or to transport all the manure back to the fields. Feed is bought in and large volumes of liquid manure is held in lagoons and spread in high concentrations on fields.
In addition to nuisance odor, there is the issue of methane. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas and cattle and other domesticated ruminants are a significant source. Bion has predicted that its method for processing manure will reduce the methane output, but this is a new technology that is untested at this scale. Burning of manure solids is also a concern. There has been too little documentation related to the emission control components of this system.
Rick Welsh is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Clarkson University in Potsdam. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on agricultural issues. His previous positions include policy analyst at the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program for the Southern Region.