Craigs Station Creamery looks like a typical small dairy, the kind of farm that was once ubiquitous across rural New York state.
Chris Noble, whose farm is one of the eight that makes up the creamery joint venture, hopes the business can be different enough to succeed where other dairy farms today are struggling. The dairy farm cooperative does things a little bit differently, starting with their power source. The creamery uses a mechanism called an anaerobic digester to break down a mixture of food waste and cow manure to turn it into usable electricity that powers the entire operation.
Dairy farms today face sharp criticism for their contribution to air and water pollution—criticism that’s punctuated by hits to the dairy industry like the rising popularity of plant-based milk alternatives and a decreasing dairy export market. Sustainable technologies like biodigesters offer dairy farmers a way to mitigate environmental impacts and maybe even win back those elusive American millennial consumers.
There are 248 anaerobic digester projects on livestock farms across the United States, 198 of which are located on dairy farms. Dan Blaustein-Rejto, a senior food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, says that according to EPA projections based on farms that could potentially adopt the anaerobic digesters, the technology has the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector by about ten percent.
That’s not an insignificant reduction, Blaustein-Rejto says, and there are other benefits too. “Anaerobic digesters, at least according to the EPA’s research, can cut methane emissions from the average dairy or hog farm by about 85 percent, so that’s a really huge reduction of one of the main sources of emissions.”
EPA chart reflecting emissions reductions from farm biodigesters SOURCE: EPA.GOV
Not everyone is a fan of the technology. “Some people are more pessimistic,” says Blaustein-Rejto, citing complaints about local air pollution and other environmental health issues. Residents of Fort Collins, Colorado in 2017, for example, raised so many complaints about the noxious odors coming from a local biodigester that the facility was eventually closed. On the other hand, biodigesters can help keep nutrient runoff from manure out of local waterways. “If it weren’t being used,” says Noble, “it would be sitting in a lagoon.”
Maintaining these systems can pose a significant financial challenge for the farms who have them, however, says Blaustein-Rejto, as federal funding and state financial incentives are often available for upfront costs (this was the case for the biodigester at Noblehurst Farms, for example), but not necessarily for the expenses associated with the upkeep of these systems.
That’s why Noble hopes investments in sustainable technologies, like the biodigester and an on-farm water recycling system they installed, will ultimately help the creamery attract new consumers, the kinds of consumers that the American dairy industry is so desperately seeking these days.
Noble has been intently focused on these strategies since his return to the family farm ten years ago. Before that, he worked for a bank in New York city researching the California fruit and vegetable growing market, where he was struck by the impact of farmers finding more direct paths to their customers.
“I learned a ton about that industry that sort of paralleled what’s going on in dairy,” he says, explaining how, over the years, consumers have increasingly come to demand transparency from the people who grow their food. Noble sees the dairy industry struggling, and is convinced part of the problem is farmers failing to make that direct connection. “I saw a lot of businesses in the fruit and vegetable space becoming successful because they were able to have that supply chain story,” which is now something he hopes the creamery can do with its cheese.
The creamery puts the faces of its farmers and their families on the cheese it sells—cheese produced in a facility located right next to the farm. This is all designed to tell consumers that the cheese made here comes from a family farm and not some impersonal corporate farming operation, but the line between family farm and corporate operation has long been a pretty blurry one.
The vast majority of farms today are family farms—98% according to the 2017 USDA Ag Census—but like many businesses, small and large alike, most are structured as a corporation under the law. At the same time, the consolidation of farms is a real phenomenon impacting farmers—a handful of large-scale farms are responsible for most of the food produced in the U.S. today, including dairy foods.
Much like “GMO” or “organic,” corporate farming has come to take on a meaning beyond the literal definition. Consumers suspect a kind of soullessness with corporate farming, which they fear translates to poor treatment of the soil or the crops, the farmworkers or the animals. But in the dairy industry today, farmers have to find ways to scale up in order to survive.
“I’m not sure that us as farmers would be able to get in there without the support of DFA,” says Noble, referring to Dairy Farmers of America, the national dairy cooperative that is a funder the creamery that helped the operation land a number of national grocery chains as regular customers. “DFA brings the corporate relationships, you know, the Stop n Shops, the ShopRite, the Giant Foods,” he explains.
At the same time, the creamery is a cooperative of just eight small dairy farms. The milk is processed in a facility that’s just a short walk from where many of the cows are milked, and the other farms are all located within 30 miles. Even though Noble and the other farmers had to convince local residents that housing the processing facility right there at the farm was a good idea, the cooperative felt it was important to keep the creamery and the cows close together.
Finding the balance between the tradition of the small farm and those necessary economies of scale is a constant calculation, says Noble. “We have so much technology available to us today that we’re almost unable to keep up with.”
Whether it’s because the technology is impractical for a farm of their size or it costs too much, the newest technology isn’t always the right fit. For example, the cows are milked on a rotary milker, an investment the farm made about ten years ago after moving away from an older parallel parlor system, but robotic milkers aren’t yet a viable option.
Robotic milkers are still too expensive, even though turning to them would cut labor costs and demand. “It’s becoming much more like, there’s people that just milk cows, people that just do the cropping, so finding [these] highly specialized people…is becoming more challenging, especially in rural areas,” Noble says.
The business often has to be creative about finding workers, whether it’s local residents (the farm hires workers from an organization that employs developmentally disabled area residents to work the biodigester, for example), students from Cornell University or H-2A visa workers.
“Not a lot of young people are coming back to these jobs,” says Noble, whose family has farmed for generations. Some of the farm’s buildings date back to the 1960s, which is a history Noble is eager to convey even as he shows off the newer technologies like the biodigester. “I think consumers need to know that story [too],” he says. “They want to know that they’re supporting something that’s looking ahead.”
Note: the author has contributed to the Breakthrough Institute’s Journal.