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November 23, 2010 - 8:27pm

Local farmers concerned about proposed budget cut to Soil and Water District

dalestein_manudust.jpg

In a long conversation today about the need for the Soil and Water Conservation District in Genesee County, Le Roy dairy farmer Dale Stein didn't once complain about an increasingly demanding Environmental Protection Agency.

He just said "Farmers need help."

That help has come for years from the Soil and Water District. Staff members have the expertise to help farmers comply with regulations that protect the land, air and water.

"All of us want to live in a good environment," Stein said. "But we can't do it on our own."

After our talk, Stein walked me across the street, through the mud and over a plank bridge that spans a cement trough, a little creek if you will, of liquid manure.

manudust.jpgThe manure is fed into a new $170,000 machine that pulls out the solids, drys it, mashes it up and sends it out a conveyor belt into a big pile in a new storage building.

Sawdust, which has served as bedding for cows for decades or longer, is getting expensive, Stein said. Increasingly, it's used in recycled products, which drives the cost up for farmers.

Now, Stein's cows sleep on their own processed manure.

"The cows love it," Stein said. "It's soft and fluffy."

Surprisingly, it has no discernible odor.

The environmentally friendly process was driven as much by federal guidelines to reduce his manure waste as it was by economics.

After a 30-percent federal grant to help pay for the project, Stein said the savings on sawdust purchasing will pay for the operation inside of two years.

Without the help of Soil and Water technicians, Stein said, the project would been a lot harder to pull off. They help identify issues on his farm that might run afoul of regulations, find the right solutions, help secure grants to pay for the projects and then ensure the project is completed within federal or state guidelines.

No farmer, Stein said, has that kind of expertise.

These are tough times, though, and the Genesee County Legislature wants to balance the county's $140.5 million budget without raising property taxes. At the same time, more than 80 percent of the county's revenue is tied up in covering the expense of unfunded mandates.

So, where the county can cut, officials are looking at deep cuts.

scottpage.jpgFor the Soil and Water District, that means a 15-percent reduction -- $26,000 -- in the county's $170,000 allocation.

With the budget cut, there will be at least one less staff member in the district, according to Brad Rodgers, chairman of the Soil and Water board of directors.

"(The cut) would be a real detriment to the agriculture industry in Genesee County," said Rogers. "Even level funding would hurt us."

Scott Page, president of the Genesee County Farm Bureau, believes keeping Soil and Water is critical to protecting Genesee County's economic base.

"If we hurt ag, we miss an opportunity to move forward," said Page. "The more we build off our agricultural base, the better the local economy will do."

Page said his family has been dairy farmers in Le Roy for 50 years, and he's seen the regulations get tighter and more technical. While he doesn't think they are entirely necessary ("What farmer doesn't want to care for his animals?" he says), there is just no way the typical Genesee County farmer can keep abreast of all the regulations without experts to lead the way, he said.

Although Stein's manure recycling project has a direct economic benefit to his business, complying with many of the state and federal regulations adds nothing to the bottom line.

"It's tough for a farmer to lay aside that kind of money for something that is not going to generate profit," Page said.

Banks don't want to loan farmers money to undertake projects that often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Banks are only willing to help, Stein said, because there are federal grants available to pay from 30 to 70 percent of a project's cost.

And it takes Soil and Water experts to help a farmer through the application process.

"We have a good Soil and Water program," Stein said. "But we will start losing farms in this county pretty quickly due to these regulations without help."

Photos: Top, Dale Stein in front of a pile of manure dust; inset, Stein holding a handful of processed manure; bottom inset, Scott Page.

JoAnne Rock
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Very interesting and eye-opening article. I had no idea that the Soil and Water district played such an important role in local agriculture.
C. M. Barons
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