Dairy producers in Oneida County air “beefs” at winter shop meeting

CE-MR-2-Winter shop meeting1by Pat Malin

HOLLAND PATENT, NY — Skyrocketing electricity bills, GMO crops, farm inspections, water drainage, crop insurance and a seemingly-endless winter were on the minds of a group of dairy farmers who gathered at Finndale Farms for the final winter Shop Meeting sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Oneida County.

Six area dairy farmers took advantage of a rare, sunny day on March 11 to meet and discuss current issues and socialize with fellow producers.

CCE specialist Mary Wregge started out by discussing impending electric bill rate increases and informing farmers about the pros and cons of switching to an alternative supplier.

“They’re canvassing and trying to get you to switch,” she said of the energy companies. “But you need to protect yourself against fraud.”

Dave Schieferstine switched from National Grid to an alternative supplier of electricity, but has doubts about his decision. Holding up his statement, he revealed that the basic supply charge doubled from $679 (November-December) to $1,300 in the second month (December to January), then jumped to $2,459 in February.

The cost for delivery went from $403 to $508 at the start of winter, then declined to $464.

National Grid filed legal notices in local newspapers about rate increases for electric and gas effective April 1, so consumers should brace themselves for increases when they see their bills.

“Let’s face it, energy bills never go down,” Wregge commented.

Schieferstine said he complained about the increase to the New York Public Rate Commission, but they told him that the new supplier was only passing along the rates it has been charged by National Grid.

Since National Grid continues to distribute the power, switching to a new supplier might not make much difference, Wregge said.

Troy Finn, who hosted the dairy meeting in his calf barn at Finndale Farms, said his family farm has always been on a timer system when it comes to the gas and electric rates. He hasn’t seen any dramatic increase yet.

“We have three levels of usage,” he said. “It seems the standard timer use is cheaper (than the variable rate), but I don’t think the average dairy producer is aware of it. A time-of-use rate meter is not as effective as a standard rate.”

Before switching, Wregge recommended that farmers ask their energy company for a free energy audit and get a baseline of their power usage and bills for the last 12 months. “Your bill already includes a fee that entitles you to a free energy audit.”

Producers then need to determine whether they’re on a fixed or variable rate and to weigh the differences between peak versus low demand.

“A fixed rate might give you peace of mind,” Wregge said. “But a variable rate might mean a lower cost. Larger companies, generally, can absorb more fluctuations than a smaller company. We (CCE) can give you this information, but you’re the one who needs to make the final decision.”

Wregge also advised farmers to study the fine print before signing a contract with any supplier. The customer needs to determine the length of the service. As customers might have experienced with their mobile phone contracts, she warned consumers about companies who charge a penalty for canceling the policy before the end of its contract.

Some power companies have been known to engage in deceptive practices, such as “slamming,” she said, in which a company unlawfully switches you to their plan without your permission after you’ve made a routine inquiry.

“Generally, consumers have 7 to 10 days after signing to cancel a contract without penalty,” she said.
Leon Atwell, a longtime farmer from Remsen, observed that producers and homeowners have little control over their electric or water rates.

“It costs the power company a certain amount to produce the power,” he said. “Even if you try to cut back, your rate still goes up.”

Atwell has owned his small 375-acre farm since 1956 and started growing corn for grain in 1966. He said one of his concerns for the upcoming season is about random farm inspections. At the time of the meeting at Finndale Farm, he didn’t know that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will limit its comprehensive dairy farm inspections to large operations, meaning those that had 11 or more non-family employees within the last 12 months.

Inspections will begin on large farms on July 1. Nevertheless, Atwell told CCE ag specialist Jeff Miller that farmers have no idea if those farm inspectors are qualified to conduct inspections and whether they are knowledgeable about “humane” farming practices.

Miller went on to discuss the advantages of no-till planting. One is to help offset increasing gas prices.

“As fuel prices go up, farmers want to do less and less (tilling),” he said. No-till, combined with planting a cover crop like red clover, would return minerals and vitamins to the soil.

Miller also discussed the cost and effort of planting Roundup-ready corn. Finn said he grows 100 percent Roundup-ready corn on his farm and finds it effective. He said half of that corn is used for silage and the other half for grain for his cows.

Atwell conceded that Roundup-ready corn is “monopolizing” the market and he feels it has led to significant increases in the price for seed in the last 10 years, but he agreed with Finn that it effectively cuts down on weeds and insect damage.

Miller also provided some suggestions on crop insurance and passed out an informational rate sheet to the farmers. Generally, 40 percent of farmers in New York State carry some crop insurance, he said.

Schieferstine, who has 180 cows, had questions about the new margin protection plan in the new federal farm bill and whether it will mean higher prices for dairy producers or for milk consumers.

Schieferstine and Finn said their farms were hit with floods last spring. Finn, whose 1,800 acres is one of the largest crop farms in Oneida County, said this spring he intends to build up the tile drainage.

“Every year, we try to put more land into production,” he said. “Up until last year, I never thought that tile drainage would pay off.”

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