CGP Community Stories

Jennifer Huntington, November 01, 2015

Title

Jennifer Huntington, November 01, 2015

Subject

Farming
Agriculture
Hydrofracking
Landowner's rights
Natural Gas Drilling
Alternative Energy
Dairy Science
Farm Economy
Public Advocacy
Genetically Modified Organisms

Description

Jennifer Huntington is the owner of the Cooperstown Holstein Corporation in Middlefield, New York. She was born in Cooperstown on February 28, 1962. She has spent her life in the Cooperstown area, apart from four years at Cornell University, and has worked her farm for the past 25 years. Ms. Huntington and her father, the farm’s previous owner, have overseen technological advancements in everything from milking equipment to genetically modified seeds. She discusses society’s gradual move away from agricultural connection and the subsequent responsibility of farmers to teach the public about what they do and why they do it. To meet that responsibility, she has organized events that bring people to her farm and give them the chance to learn about her work.

In 2012, Ms. Huntington was involved in a controversial lawsuit related to hydrofracking. The New York Supreme Court ruling in "Cooperstown Holstein Corporation v. Middlefield" determined that local zoning laws could legally restrict oil and gas drilling within a town’s geographical borders. Prior to the town of Middlefield’s decision to ban hydrofracking, Ms. Huntington had executed leases with a company that wanted to explore the option of drilling on her farm. She brought a lawsuit against the town to determine whether or not they had the legal right to place this restriction on private property. She ultimately lost the case, which gained widespread publicity for its importance to zoning enforcements across the state of New York. Ms. Huntington was at the center of a heated debate that polarized the community.

Ms. Huntington’s interview covers her experiences with farm work over the decades. She speaks at length about her relationship to the land, which informed her decision to fight for the ability to use it as she saw fit. She explains how she weighed the risks of oil and gas development on the environment and the reasons she felt it was an important option for rural landowners. The interview also takes a broader look at economic, social, and technological changes in farming over recent decades.

Creator

Kate Webber

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2015-11-16

Rights

New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mp3
28.8 mB
audio/mp3
15.9 mB
image/jpg
2.8 mB
2580 x 1935

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Img

Identifier

15-008

Coverage

Cooperstown, NY
1962-2015

Interviewer

Kate Webber

Interviewee

Jennifer Huntington

Location

NYSHA Library
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Research and Fieldwork Course (HMUS 520)
Oral History Project
Fall 2015

Interview with Jennifer Huntington by Kate Webber

Interviewer: Webber, Kate
Interviewee: Huntington, Jennifer
Date: November 16, 2015
Location of interview: Cooperstown, NY

Archive or Library Repository: Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY


JH = Jennifer Huntington
KW = Kate Webber

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

KW: This is the November 16, 2015 interview of Jennifer Huntington by Kate Webber for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Research and Fieldwork Course, recorded at the New York State Historical [Association] Library in Cooperstown, New York. Jennifer, thank you so much for coming in today.

JH: Thank you for inviting me.

KW: Oh, of course. To start off I just want to get a quick introduction from you. So it’ll have your name and where you were born. In the format of—my name is Jennifer Huntington and I was born in…

JH: My name’s Jennifer Huntington and I was born in [Mary Imogene] Bassett Hospital. Local.

KW: So you’ve been in Cooperstown your whole life?

JH: Yes, I lived here [my] entire life. I spent four years at Cornell University and I came back and I’ve been very local since then.

KW: And what can you tell me about your family?

JH: My dad’s passed away. He was the youngest of six boys and then he proceeded to have five daughters. I’m not sure if he was born at Bassett or not but he lived his life—also was born in the Schenevus area, family was involved. His father, so my grandfather, was principal at Andrew S. Draper Central School in Schenevus. And his brothers went into either agriculture or education fields. My mom was born in Massachusetts and her father was a captain in the Navy. And they moved here in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s I believe, in the Schenevus area, and that’s how she and my dad met.

KW: And what were your parent’s names?

JH: My dad is Peter Huntington, my mom is Evelyn.

KW: And you mentioned doing agricultural studies and the history of that in your family—did that play at all into the farming later?

JH: No, but my dad had a—the Huntington family does have a genealogy book that goes all the way back to before 1620 or something like that. They trace it back and then have traced out all the lineage. So it’s always interesting to read through that and see the trials and tribulations they had in the 1700s, 1800s when they had a bunch of kids and kids that didn’t live or different things that they have done and that. So that’s always been interesting. But my grandfather with the boys started a farm over in Westford. And then there were two that farmed: my dad and my Uncle Bob. Uncle Don sold equipment, Uncle Jim had a milk hauling business, and then Uncle Ted and Uncle Dave ended up being chancellors, presidents of some colleges.

[TRACK 1, 2:48]

KW: So kind of a split between education and—

JH: Education and—yep.

KW: So how did your family end up in Cooperstown?

JH: Back in the mid ‘60s it was my Uncle Bob. And he had I think seven children and then my dad and my mom had just had me and then my sister. And they were only milking about 60 or 70 cows. And it became apparent that that farm was not going to be large enough to support the two families as they were growing. And again they were running into partnership or corporation—they looked out in the area and found quite a bit of land. There ended up being three different farms in the Cooperstown area that they bought in ’64. And by ’72 the last one that was milking in a tie stall, we sold that one and consolidated everything into the free stall that we’re at. So that’s why we ended up where we are, is just growth and having to have enough room to have all the things. Late, mid ‘70s I guess, the partnership between my Uncle Bob and my dad was dissolved and they each went their separate ways with their own businesses. My Uncle Bob is no longer farming now, someone else—other people have farmed on that farm over the years, I’m not sure if it’s still operating today or not. And then my dad continued this farm. I’ve been here since ’93 I think, since ’90.

KW: So is your farm the last family farm in your family?

JH: In that family, yes.

KW: What were the main differences between farming in Cooperstown and the previous areas your family had been in?

JH: There are two types of farms that you’ll find around. One is a tie stall farm, which is a barn, tie stall barn, where the animals are tied. And generally those are probably a hundred or less. It requires an awful lot of labor for the farmer because the farmer has to walk to each cow—generally speaking—the farmer has to walk to each cow to milk them and then the farmer has to bring each feed individually to the cows. A lot of labor, also in terms of cleaning the manure out. In a free stall barn, the cows are free. They can wander wherever they want to go, if they want to eat, they eat if they’re hungry, or if they’re tired they lay down. And then we bring them up to the parlor, so one person can milk 300 cows in three or four hours as opposed to one person taking three hours to milk 100 cows. So it’s much more labor efficient, and that’s why we want that. You look to something bigger. At the time that we bought the farm it was about the only free stall, one of the first early free stalls in the area. And I have a picture from years ago of my dad—the Freeman’s Journal had come down for an article that says, “Can you believe milking your cows standing up?” And that’s just a new type of technology and people [were] very interested in seeing it and just progress and seeing things change all the time. So that’s why that is. We are still a family farm even though we have lots of employees. My dad used to say, “It’s not just a one family farm when you’re family farmer, but your employees’.” So you’re supporting seven or eight families on the farm.

KW: Yeah, absolutely. How many employees do you have now?

JH: There’s I think nine employees. There’s four Hispanics and then the balance would be local folks. It’s getting harder and harder to find people with agricultural background. We’re getting more generations removed from agriculture. When I would advertise for jobs back in the eighties I would have 15, 20 people asking for a job, and now when I advertise I have no people responding to the job application.

KW: Why do you think that is?

JH: People don’t want to farm. People don’t know what farming is. And again people that aren’t raised in a rural area—most of what we do, it’s very difficult to bring somebody in with absolutely no skills and train them. There’s some kind of things that you just have to be immersed in and [have] grown up with and kind of assimilate them. So I think it’s just the fact that there’s so little agriculture—not so little, but there’s just a lot less agriculture than there was twenty years ago and a whole lot less than there was in the fifties. It amazes me to wander down the country roads and see how many silos and barns are out there. And in 1950 probably all of those were milking cows. And then through technology and things have just gotten bigger and—what’s the word—coalesced? Combined, whatever the word is.

[TRACK 1, 7:16]

KW: You were mentioning being a few generations removed from the farm. How important do you think it is to have farming in your family, or in your blood or whatever you would call it?

JH: I think it’s very important. Some of the statistics say there’s like three to five percent of the population feed the other 93 to 95 percent of the population. I think we’re having the discussions now that as people are further removed away from the food source that they don’t really know what we’re doing. Because they don’t go to visit grandma anymore, or grandpa, or great-grandma and grandpa. So they don’t understand what all is involved. I was told once that if you don’t tell somebody what you do, somebody else will tell them what you do. And it may not be what I do. So it’s important I think for farmers, whatever they’re doing, to really discuss with people what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. Because consumers are starting to ask those questions as they get further removed from actually physically [farming]. I have a Sunday on the farm event that we held in ’14 and again in ’15, patterned after other counties that do a similar thing. And it opens up your farm to the public and allows the public to come in and actually see what is a dairy farm really about. And they may hear a lot of things and to actually have them come in and see it and be able to talk to us is very important.

KW: Do you think that’s gone well so far?

JH: I think it has. The first year we didn’t advertise too much because I didn’t want 5,000 people. There are some counties that gather that many people that come. They’ve done a lot of publicity and they’ve worked on it for a number of years. In 2015 I had about 200, 250, which is a good number. I think we’re looking ahead to do a little more advertising, but it certainly takes a lot of work and it can be a little concerning to open yourself up to people that may have a negative view. But everybody has their opinion, and just respect everybody’s opinion and what we do.

KW: Who organizes that?

JH: The first year I did it mostly myself with help from the Otsego County Dairy Promotion Committee. This past year, in ’15, I had a lot of help from Farm Bureau—Otsego County Farm Bureau helped. Extensions, Soil and Water Conservation District, some of the other ag [agriculture] groups. So we had a few displays, five or seven different organizations that came in and set up booths to let the public know what NRCS does, what FSA does, things like that.

[TRACK 1, 9:44]

KW: Now, you said NRCS, what is that?

JH: NRCS is Natural Resources Service Conservation, something like that.

KW: Okay, and the F…

JH: Farm Service Agency. And the other one is Soil and Water Conservation, SWCD. Conservation District.

KW: Thank you. Are there many efforts that involve the cooperation of different organizations like that?

JH: There are. I think the industry—and I guess I sometimes will talk specifically dairy because that’s what I know, and then more broadly agriculture, which could include vegetables, could include beef, could include chicken, pork, all that kind of stuff—I think the agriculture industry as a whole is starting to gather themselves together and trying to present a more unified picture. I think us farmers traditionally like to be left alone. We like to go about our own business, we’re very quiet people generally. Generally speaking farmers were your backbone of a lot of your committees back in the sixties, seventies, eighties. As there have become fewer and fewer and fewer of those you’re getting less farmers on your planning boards and on some of your local boards. And I think you’re starting to see a little bit more communication and effort between different organizations to try to get our story out and to let people know what we have and what we have to do. And so these are good organizations that have headquarters up into the state government and reaches up into that so that we can reach a lot of people. And influence some policies and things like that.

KW: How do you think that support has affected your farm, personally?

JH: We’ve been there so long a lot of people are aware of what we are, but we have a tremendous amount of people that are moving into the area from downstate or from more urban areas that don’t understand what we do. We do live in an ag district, ag districts are there to protect the farmer. There are smells, there are odors, there are sounds that happen because you’re in an ag district. And we’ve over the years have had some concerns, and it’s like, well, you live in an ag district. This is why you moved up to the country, for the green grass and the corn and the cows, and with those things come practices such as getting our crops in, spreading our manure. And that’s part of country living. So it’s an education, to educate them to what’s going on up here.

KW: Are there any resources that they provide in addition to that?

JH: Provide me? There are more and more of those coming along. My DFAs, Dairy Farmers of America, they purchased or merged with Dairylea which is my milk cooperative. The family’s been involved with Dairylea since like the 1920s, 1930s. Nineteen-thirties, I guess. And they’re a large corporation, national corporation. They market my milk and they do have a publicity [department] and that type of department. So if we have any questions, any concerns, those are people you can reach out to. Certainly New York State Farm Bureau has people that are—their job is to facilitate some questions that you might have. So there are definitely places. And as we’re getting more and more interaction with the consumers we’re really trying to work at getting farmers so they’re comfortable talking about what they do and making sure we get the right message out.

KW: Would you say that your family farm has consistently kept up with advances in technology and things like that?

JH: Yes. Again, starting from when we purchased it, again, it was probably the only one in the county that was free stall and certainly probably one of the few in the state that was free stall. And that was milking in a parlor. We’ve kept up with artificial insemination, which almost everybody uses now for breeding the cows rather than having a bull on the farm, which can be dangerous. Technology in terms of the anaerobic digester—my dad put an anaerobic digester together in 1984, one of three in the United States that was collecting the methane, processing it, and then selling it to a third party facility rather than using it on the premise. And we were selling it to the Meadows, the nursing home that was just a quarter mile up the road from us. That discontinued after about seven years when different parts needed to be refurbished on either end and we decided to put in a cogeneration unit and use the gas to produce our own electricity. And again, dad was way ahead of the time, and it was—at that time New York State was not required to buy excess so they would take it but would not give us any money. And over the course of the next five to seven years there was the net metering laws that came into effect and things like that. But that currently is not operational on our farm. Some of it is just tremendous cash outlays to get some stuff running. But it was an interesting thing that I had thought—it still may be popular in this type of area—is to find a way to get a community digester, whether at our farm—you could take in community waste. You could pipe—the Manor is, now it’s the Focus—is just a mile off the road and the county jail is next, along with public safety buildings and things like that. So there’s a lot of possibility of providing electricity or something like that for things locally.

KW: That’s great. Has there been any public response to that—do you have people who are excited about the idea?

JH:When the digester was first put up we had a number of open houses and again it was one of the first things going on. It’s interesting to go see what they’re doing today and it really is the same thing we did in ’84, they haven’t really changed or improved on much of the technology. It’s all the same. Well they have improved on some of it but the basic premise is still pretty much the same, of what they’re doing. And when ours went down—most things mechanically have like a 20-year life span. So after the 20 years things need to be repaired. There actually was no money available for refurbishing, but they had all kinds of money to putting up a brand new one. So it’s just how things work. So I think when all is said and done that would be something that’s kind of on our list right now but cash is tight with a lot of different things, a lot of grants and things like that. So again now you need somebody who knows how to write grants so you can go to NYSERDA—which is New York State Energy Research and Development Authority or Association—to write some grants for you to help you get some money to do some things. But the area has generally been very open to different ideas and things like that.

[TRACK 1, 16:31]

KW: Now, is that the organization that would have funded that?

JH: NYSERDA funded it in ’84, yes. They helped along with probably some other smaller grants. But as for working with the state or federal government, there’s a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross. The story goes that at the end of the day dad was waiting for, I don’t know, 20,000 dollars and finally he says, “Forget it [laughter]. I just can’t jump through any more hoops to get you what you want.” But all in all they were very helpful for us. We worked with Cornell. A number of students, graduate students, came down over the course of the next three or four years and did their graduate programs on collecting the gas: how much, different volumes that went in, how it went in, how it was processed, and what kind of volume you got back out of it. Lots of different studies went on.

KW: Do you think the average farmer in the area, just knowing people you’ve talked to, is interested in things like that or is that kind of—you mentioned farmers traditionally wanting to be left alone—is there a trust issue with something like Cornell coming in?

JH: I don’t think there’s a trust issue with that, I think right now digesters are not financially feasible for people. It’s interesting if you look at Europe and you look at here. [In] Europe, 100 cow farms have digesters. And here you’re probably at over 1,000 cows before it really kind of pays for itself, so to speak. And a lot of that may be you have so little land in Europe that’s available to do stuff with, here in the United States apparently we still have a lot of available land to do things with. And the power company here feels that we’re going to put them out of business, at least they did twenty years ago or fifteen years ago, when we were trying to explore some stuff. Europe has a very different view on some of the energy issues than what we do. One of the reasons we went to the digester was it removes 80 percent of the odor. And once you store manure for a period of time and then you stir it all up and spread it out, it smells. So the process of the digester removes a lot of the odor. And because we’re so close to town, that was a positive thing to do. But I think lots of farms—there is one farm out in Western New York, I believe, they put a digester in and they partnered with a number of different farms. So they sized it so that four or five farms could bring their manure in and then we store it and then when we farm in the spring, we’d be spreading it on the field and then immediately incorporating it into the soil, so that—because if I spread it now, a lot of the nutrients, the nitrogen volatilizes. So if I spread it in the spring and immediately after I spread it if I till the land and turn it under, that saves all the nutrients there so it’s less fertilizer I need to buy. Those farms that have to spread all year round lose a share of their fertilizers. So to be able to store it and put it where you need it is advantageous. But you don’t need a digester for that, you just need a slurry storer. But the digester—and I think it will come, it just needs to work its way through and become more economical for people.

KW: So it sounds like you’re pretty interested in doing things efficiently but also things that will be good overall. Can you talk about any sense of responsibility you have for the land?

JH: Yep. Every farmer wants to pass it on, see it grow, continue to grow. One of the sayings is you hope that you leave it better than the way that you found it. We have a lot of good folks here in the area that have purchased stretches of land that don’t know what to do with them and do not intend to farm with them but want to see the land kept up and farmed and maintained. And so we rent quite a bit of land from people to maintain that. Maybe you need to repeat your question again.

[TRACK 1, 20:38]

KW: Oh yeah, just talking about your relationship to the land you farm.

JH: Yeah. I can’t farm if I deplete all the soils and everything like that. I can’t grow. I can’t grow any crops, and I can’t farm. So it’s all integrated. The same thing with taking care of your animals; if your animals are taken care of poorly they’re not going to produce milk and you’re not going to be sufficient or sustainable. So definitely. And again working with some of the government agencies on land that isn’t on a steep slope—because of the number of animals I have I’m under CAFO requirements, Confined Animal Feeding Operation requirements. And the state and federal government keep track of me to be sure that I stay away from wells, I stay away from water, all sorts of things that make sense to protect water and sources and things like that. And we’ve put in—planted trees along the Susquehanna for erosion control, lots of different things. We have a CRP wetland area, which as I went by today the eagle was—the bald eagle, we have one now—one or two, I can’t tell them apart—that come visit our area. So that’s been nice to see. My dad, I don’t believe my dad ever saw a bald eagle. He passed seven years ago, seven or eight years ago. So it’s interesting and I feel sad that he never saw one and now we can see one probably at least once a week if not more often. To see those beautiful birds come back. A little bit of a side note: I had a picture of one on the side of the road eating a deer. I showed it to those above thirty and they’re like, “Oh my god, what a beautiful bird!” And when you show it to the 17 year-olds, they say, “What is the brown thing?” [Laughter] I said, “Who cares?” So it really is a difference—when I grew up you never saw a bald eagle. The younger kids now, it’s not as special, I guess. For us it’s still special. But yes, farmers always want to take care of the land because that’s what their business is based on. And you’ve got to take care of your base and your business and what makes your product for your animals. Along those things with technology, things like seed corn have tremendously changed. There was what we would call conventional corn, which does not have any traits in it. Now we can find corn that is Roundup Ready. I don’t really want to get into the discussion of whether you like Monsanto or not or whatever. And that means that I can go in and I can spray Roundup or herbicide that will kill unwanted stuff but leave the corn there. So it doesn’t have to compete. They also have been able to trait corn to prevent rootworm, cornborer, things like that. And I guess that’s what people are calling GMOs, genetically modified things. But I think as agriculture in general, one of our tasks in my opinion is to find how we’re going to feed the world. This is no longer—this is a global market now. My prices for my milk are influenced by what’s happening in New Zealand, Brazil. What I pay for soy is influenced by realizing that a lot of your beef that you’re buying at the store now is coming from Brazil, it’s not local. So all of that. My beef price in the last two months has dropped fifty cents, almost half of what I was getting when I sold beef. So it’s very much a global market. But we are tasked with feeding the world, and so we need to very carefully and safely be sure that we get the most amount of product we can off an acre of land. Because we’re not making any more land, I guess is what they say.

[TRACK 1, 24:11]

KW: Can you talk about how that’s changed since your father’s early days farming?

JH: I think there were so many more farms. And now you’re losing—just locally here in the last ten, fifteen years—land that we’ve worked for years have become parking lots, have become housing lots. So you’re losing land and generally speaking everybody wants to put their house in the nice spot which typically could be the best soil to farm on, too. So it makes it challenging. And I don’t know that you’re going to see that slow down. I mean that’s just change and it forces us to be more productive with each acre that we have. So the changes that you see are more the traiting and the corn and the more options that are available so it’s actually getting harder and harder now to find just a plain corn. Just I want a simple corn without all the traits because it does get rather expensive. I used to buy corn for 75 dollars a bag, now almost everything is $250 to $300 a bag for corn. And again you’re making that with the same amount of money you made back in the seventies, and you’re buying your inputs so much more expensively.

KW: Do you have any control over that? Can farmers get together to some extent to affect prices?

JH: Now we’re back to the part that we’re all individuals, and farmers tend to farm because they like to just kind of—and generally, not everybody. I often say farmers are our own worst enemy. Because it’s very difficult to get us all together to make us all agree on something. And maybe that’s true of a lot of organizations that have such diverse personalities and interests and that. But currently we cannot influence our price of milk. The only way I could influence what my milk got paid was if I wanted to bottle it myself or produce what they would call a value-added product—produce cheese, produce yogurt, sell my milk, things like that. Other than that the milk is traded on the Chicago board of trade, very thinly traded, and prices are set by the government based on something. Some place in Wisconsin, they decided back in 1930 was the place to base everything off of. It’s a third-year graduate level course in how milk is priced. It’s very complicated. So it’s very frustrating to know. And the government has had different programs over the years that they’ve tried to use to help that. Milk traditionally is a price loss or price loser, whatever the word is, in your supermarket. Your supermarket doesn’t make money selling milk. And that’s why milk is always in the furthest corner from the door; it’s because you have to walk by all the chips and all the other kinds of stuff. And that’s where they make their money. Not on the milk. So it’s difficult.

KW: And in terms of pricing for the seed you buy, would you say it’s a tradeoff of the higher price versus being able to get a specific trait that helps you?

JH:Traditionally it is, yes. Your higher prices will be the stuff that has more traits in it. And this year is a tight cash flow year for me, so I’m looking to see if there’s something without a lot of traits in it. Generally speaking we rotate our fields enough that some of the organisms that may be in the soil, if you put it into alfalfa or you put it into soybeans—take it out of corn into soybeans—the organism doesn’t grow in soybeans. So it lessens the population so you can go back with corn and have less of a problem with some of these. So that’s what I’m hoping to do this coming year. Did that answer your question?

KW: Yeah, I was just wondering if you thought it was worth it.

JH: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. And I’ve gotten away from it a little bit. I would look at first-year corn—which means it was alfalfa last year and this year it’s going to be corn—should not have any pressure from any organisms, so in theory I could just use a regular conventional. Not even a Roundup Ready. Or only a Roundup Ready. The problem gets to be, we’re talking 800 acres of corn and I have to remember to tell the man that’s doing the spraying, “This one, do not use Roundup on this one because it’s not Roundup Ready.” And if you use Roundup on it then it’s going to kill everything. So it gets harder. So we switch to using all Roundup Ready so at least I don’t have to worry. The herbicide will work across all the acres, it just takes a little more management if you try to split it up, but it saves some money. Different companies will charge a little bit more because they think their corn is a little bit better. I guess the other half of the technology is learning how the cow digests the feed. And that feeding more floury starch as opposed to what they would call a hard flint, which is what your grain corn is, more of a hard flint. So some of your varieties for silage would have more starch in it and more sugars maybe, and all of this correlates to how much milk you may be able to get out of your cow. So that’s what they’re all trying to sell. They do plots, different companies will do plots in the area and run three or four rows of many different varieties side by side so it’s in the same field, it got the same rain, it got the same sun, it got planted the same day, it got harvested the same day, and you can see how different varieties in the same field do. And then that would give the farmer an opportunity to say, “well, this worked really well in my area, maybe I’ll use that one,” and, “this one did not do so good in the area.” And to do trials like that. And again, a lot of—

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]

—lot of movement in the agronomy area, trying to get the best possible product. In terms of things that I do myself, nutrition is one of those things that changes so much that I employ somebody to do my rations for me. Because the technology and the information coming out is so advanced and so constantly changing that I can’t keep track of that.

KW: Tell me about your animals.

JH: There’s 600 head on the farm and about half are what we call milking cows and half are young stock. Cows have to be two years old before they have a baby and they don’t make milk until they have a baby. And those are just—some may think those are kind of silly questions but those are questions I get from people that come to visit the farm. “Why aren’t you milking the little ones up here?” It’s because just like a human before they make milk they have to have a baby. That’s how it works. And I absolutely love having people come and ask questions like that. Because some of them are embarrassed to ask them, they’re simple questions, “What’s a heifer?” It illustrates how far people are away from agriculture and that. So in terms of breeding almost everything is a Holstein, which are the larger animals, black and white. They make more milk, more pounds of milk, but typically have a lower butterfat and lower protein percent. We have some Jerseys and some Jersey crosses. Jerseys are the small brown animals. They typically have a lower milk production but they have a higher butterfat and higher protein content. Currently our milk system is based on how much butterfat and how many pounds of butterfat and how many pounds of protein you make. So I have a friend that milks Jerseys and although she only gets 50 or 60 pounds, her butterfat is higher. So her price may actually be even a little bit higher than what I get paid but I will get more cash because I make more volume. And again people that are selling it to a cheese market would like a—what do they call it—colored breed which would be your Jerseys or Brown Swiss and some of those. The components of their milk are different. Guernsey breed is looking at a A—I think it’s A2 or B2. Again just technology and research trying to find out some different components in milk that may be more healthy for you, or more easily digestible or something like that. And there are some genetic lines that are better at providing that trait than others. [That’s] some of the research that’s being done.

KW: [Phone noise] Why did you decide to stay on the farm?

JH: I just loved it, I guess. I loved it. I was the oldest in the family. I can remember I would rather spend the time at home than going with my sisters and my mom if they went someplace. I went to Cornell for Dairy Science, I wish I had taken a few more business courses, but the Dairy Science. And then I just loved I guess being out working with the animals, making my own decisions, being in charge. I did go back to school in the late eighties for cytotechnology, looking at cells under a microscope. I worked at Bay State Medical in Springfield, Mass for about a year. But it was inside a room in a laboratory with no windows, nothing. And I would come home almost every weekend. And I was there for about a year or so and decided that this really was where I’d rather be, back at home doing that. So here I am.

[TRACK 2, 3:30]

KW: Were your parents glad to see you come back?

JH: My dad was, yes. But he never—and I tried to do the same with my daughters—it’s never implied that I am running this farm for you. If you come back, that’s wonderful, if not, then you’ll choose something else. Which is a nice thing. And my dad was also very, very good about handing me the reins, so to speak. And saying, “Go ahead.” To allow me to make some mistakes. I sent the wrong cow for beef or I made the wrong choice in some things like that to allow me the ability to make some mistakes and to learn and to grow. That is some of the problem sometimes with some farms transferring. The older generation maintains all the control of the checkbook and everything until they’re 85 years old. And then they’re deceased and the 60-year-old child has never written a check, knows nothing about the finance, and running the farm. So Dad was very proactive on that. And again some of these organizations really are promoting how you’re transferring your farm to another generation. But it’s good for Dad.

KW: Do you have any—

JH: And I do not have much of a plan yet [laughter]. Again, Molly’s not that interested, Dad had told me years ago that he really didn’t think this was a very good area to be trying to farm. Just because you’re so close to a lot of stuff, land is harder to get, a lot of small fields. There are people that can have many 50, 100 acre fields. I have four-acre fields and three-acre fields and seven-acre fields and that’s just a lot of fieldwork. And then as farming gets bigger, equipment gets bigger, and then you have trouble getting into fields. And when people call us to ask if we can work their land, it’s like, well I need at least a twenty-foot opening between those two great big 300-year-old maple trees to get into your field. And sometimes that’s a deciding factor.

KW: In line with talking about the future of farming, I know you and your farm have gained a lot of attention over the past few years.

JH: Yep.

[TRACK 2, 5:38]

KW: Because of the whole hydrofracking, natural gas controversy. I’m trying to understand the issue, so what can you tell me about it?

JH: Yeah, it caused a lot of controversy. Just a second [pause, interviewee sends message on phone]. It was interesting, I think. It was a point of standing up for what I felt were my rights as a landowner, and trying to balance those with what other people’s views of the community would be or could be. I think on a very broad scale the majority, 75, 80 percent of agricultural people were in favor of at least pursuing discussing some of the stuff. And most of those farmers that were against it were organic farmers that had some different management views than what most conventional farmers had. I think it was also split—again in my opinion—on folks that had lived and worked here for generations as opposed to many folks who had moved here as retired people and perceived that they never wanted to see the land change since the day they moved here. And not understanding that the house that was built 20 years ago that they moved into changed the landscape. And it was a very politically divided discussion. I to this day still have people coming up to me that thanked me for at least speaking out and representing stuff. We did not win our case in court but it caused a lot of discussion. This last election saw a lot of people that were elected three to four years ago coming off the gas drilling were defeated by more locally grown people, I guess you could say. And some more values. Finding just a lot of different values. And again, we get a lot of people moving up here after 9-11 that just brought a lot of different values than what some of us had. I don’t know whether high volume hydrofracking would have ever occurred here. We were right on the upper fringe of it. They were looking at low volume hydrofracking, which is still legal as far as I know in New York State. Which is not the high volume. There were wells that were drilled here back in the sixties. And when people talk about things like gas in my water, setting your water on fire, there are people today that without any gas drilling in the area, plumbers will go to different places and be able to light water on fire. It’s just naturally occurring in this area. It actually ended up making me pull my daughter out of school. We homeschooled from seventh grade on. So it caused a lot of discussion. And it was interesting to see the different things. I would never want to hurt the land. And there wouldn’t be any amount of money that would allow me to tarnish all the water in the area. And then I wouldn’t be in business. So that was not ever my goal. But it certainly got some discussion going, which I think was good to discuss where you as a community wanted to see your community. I know there were a lot of older folks that I know that were actually afraid to go to town meetings for a while because there was so much animosity and nasty language and things like that that were spoken which is not how we were raised in this area. So it was interesting. I’m very proud that I took the stand. Somebody needed to take the stand across the state, and have things clarified as to which way it was. Which is what I had told somebody—if what the towns are doing are illegal, somebody needs to find out. If what I’m doing is not right, then we need to figure that out. And that’s how we do things in the United States, is you go to court, or litigation in some fashion. And have somebody higher up decide how they want to interpret the rules. So I used my constitutional right, I guess, and got things clarified. Just not in my favor this time. I think it’ll come. They’re already looking at natural gas and whether you like it or you don’t like it how it’s being used. The discussion in this area now is pipelines—trying to take it from someplace south where it’s being produced and take it over into New England where they don’t have any. Whether, “you don’t want it to be in my backyard, we don’t want it to go that way,” and I think these are all issues that aren’t going to be solved in one day or one month, it’s things that maneuver their way through and take time to evolve and see how it fits with different communities and different areas.

KW: Can you walk me through how the lawsuit came about? What agreements you had?

JH: Yep. So it was an educational process too, through it. We had what they call landmen that came—I don’t remember what year—they came through and they signed us with leases. Very low leases. And I remember thinking—it was a couple—some sum of money every year and I don’t have to do anything, it’s my land. It’s bringing me some income other than growing crops. And that’s what companies do is they send out these landmen and try to get control, so to speak, of tracts of land. And then in the process those tracts apparently are sold and I don’t even know. They sold from one to three different people, and they ended up with a particular company who wanted to come into the area and thought there was some benefit or possibility of some gas here and wanted to do some drilling. They had done some previous drilling around, but ran really into a lot of opposition in the Cooperstown area. So that’s basically how it got started. Cooperstown is a little unique, it’s similar to Cazenovia, it’s similar to Cornell, all begin with c’s. Typically speaking, very highly educated, a lot of money, a lot of retirees. And so it’s a little different of a population than when you step just a little bit outside of Cooperstown. People really in poverty, people struggling to do some things. And so it’s a little bit of a disconnect really from what’s happening in the area. So that’s basically how it went around. So the company came in and talked with a number of the landowners, I think. And then it came down to the towns. In general the towns were starting to ban—through their planning boards and town boards—banning hydrofracking. And my town of Middlefield decided to ban hydrofracking. And so that prompted me to do the lawsuits to say, “Let’s find out whether this actually can be banned or cannot be banned, how much right does the town have to say what I do on my property?” And then you always come to that question, well, you’re impacting the neighbor. Well your dog barks, your wind chimes, you know, at what point does it work or not? And I went down to Pennsylvania a couple times, visited down there, talked with farmers down there. And they were into some of it in Pennsylvania where it was legal. And Pennsylvania’s a different state. Pennsylvania has different laws. Pennsylvania is a commonwealth—I’m not into my state government, but that’s run differently than the State of New York—and they did not have any regulations controlling this type of an industry. So in some respects New York State is ahead of that, they did have some controls and some oversight and some stuff like that. But you saw a lot of money going into some very, very poor areas. And you saw farmers with a new skid steer. You saw farmers with new windows in their house. You saw farmers with new roofs on their houses. And there were a couple instances where the farm was not sustainable, like my dad’s original farm. But having some input from the gas that was below their land [made them] able to grow the dairy so that two sons that were not capable of making a living on the farm were able to come back and farm and continue the family farm. And then all the other stories that you heard about people getting sick and things like that, all of that needs to be investigated and determined whether it was or it wasn’t. From what I gather, your concern with hydrofracking—high volume hydrofracking—is actually more on the surface. Your geology is very low-damage and anything underneath will be able to move up just because you’re two feet, [correcting] two miles below the ground and the pressure is going to keep everything down there. Any spills on the surface need to be dealt with. Those are where you’re probably going to have your most [damage]. And everything is done with humans and humans make mistakes.

[TRACK 2, 15:32]

KW: So the leases that were sold, that was to a specific company and was that basically saying if there is to be drilling, it would be your company doing it?

JH: It was mostly saying that I agree to—I think it was generally speaking to allow the exploration of this kind of stuff.

KW: It wouldn’t necessarily mean a well on your property specifically.

JH: Correct. And that was one of the issues that people had with high volume hydrofracking is that you actually can go down—and if you were someone that didn’t want a well on your property I actually could go underneath your property and take the gas out. Which could be negative and it could be positive. The well could still be on my property but I could—you would still get reimbursed for the gas. That was one of the things that were different from Pennsylvania to New York. I’m remembering some of our conversations, it’s been a long time. I can’t remember the actual term of it, it might come to me. In Pennsylvania, if you do not sign a lease, then I can still come underneath and take your gas but I don’t have to pay you. In New York State, that’s not true. You can have a person that does not want to participate in gas drilling but because they’re within a 900-acre unit or something they would still—even though the gas underneath them would be taken—they would not have a well on their property but they would still be reimbursed for the fuel. And a lot of discussions say, “Well, I don’t want it to go,” so it just opened up a whole lot of communication. If I step back a bit from it—with a lot of things you just step back and you see all the workings of the government, you see the workings of the people, how we go about getting things done, how we go about getting things discussed. Some people are incredibly passionate about some things. And that’s how we get things moved and discussed and that. To do nothing is—if you don’t vote, then you should not be complaining about what’s happening in your community or the world.

KW: After the exploration phase would you have had to do some more thinking about potential spills or building up trust with a company before you actually agreed to have something on your property?

[TRACK 2, 17:54]

JH: Yeah. To me the well—and again we’re going to assume that everything was done properly and was done okay. When they’re done doing what they’re doing, and the drilling could take a period of time. I think it’s months, I don’t think it’s like seven years. The drill is not drilling for that period, it comes in and it drills and it puts all the pipes in place and then the drill leaves. And it’s left with what they call a Christmas tree, which is five or seven feet tall, and that’s where the gas is. I can farm around all that. I can’t farm around a house. We lost a large tract of land to a parking lot. That’s land that we had used for 40-some years that’s now unavailable to us. So out in Western New York, have you been out to Western New York? Chautauqua County? They had natural gas drilling, low volume gas drilling, in the fifties, sixties, seventies. And right along your roads you’ll see gas lines running through. And it was very, very profitable for those landowners. And I think they’ve had nominal problems with it. And that was something we were proposing here. You have the hospital, which stores ten or twenty thousand gallons of fuel to run a backup generator, is my understanding. As an alternative fuel source. You have schools, hospitals, colleges, things like that, that we may have been able to take off of—and I guess natural gas is a fossil fuel—but you would be able to take off, at least. And again, some people think that natural gas is cleaner and other people would argue that it’s not. I’m not going to get involved in that discussion. I have more things to spend my time on than arguing with that [laughter]. And again it’s just difference of opinion and just talking to people. I think you get more things done if you’re able to come and be able to at least acknowledge where the other person’s coming from. Having some conversation, having some dialogue, and understanding. Those people that are unwilling to bend in any kind of discussion, you really just leave them by the side and let them sit there and they’re not really part of the discussion anymore. You really need to have a give and take and have part of the discussion be involved. But the leases, they’ve expired now. But at one point the company that did actually ask to come to drill—it was just interesting seeing the setup of the companies. And you have the landmen that worked for A, so their only job was just to sign us up, and then they had nothing else to do with anything after that. And then it became pieces of property or commodity that were sold or traded to various companies. And then there was merging of other companies. We ended up with a very small company out of Canada, that was the one that wanted to drill here. And I can’t remember where they were involved, if it was a partnership or part of something larger like Shell, I would say, but I’m not sure what it was. So it was just interesting. A lot of knowledge and learning about all that stuff going on.

KW: So did the company interact with you directly?

[TRACK 2, 21:14]

JH: Yes. Again, it was a fairly small company and they were right here on the ground. They employed some local lawyers and local people. And again you’re into personalities and how different people, you know, some people come across better, some people have more patience than others. Things like that. I do know at one county board meeting we had asked the county—not the county, I’m sorry [correcting], the town—had asked people from the gas company to come and give a presentation. And the room was packed, there must have been 70, 80 people there. And as he’s giving his conversation, his discussion, one of the anti folks were there and kept saying, interrupting him. “How much longer are you going to be? I can’t even see what you’re doing.” And finally I just stood right up and said, “I am embarrassed to be in this meeting. Because we were not raised—we do not allow our kids to interrupt people like this. And this is not right.” And the room clapped, and he says, “Who are you?” I said, “Well, who are you? Because I’ve lived here my entire life and you’re new to me.” And it was somebody that had just moved here very recently and was very fervently against drilling. And come to find out she was a schoolteacher down in New Jersey. But it just brought out a lot of passion in a lot of people. And it turned a lot of the people that had lived here for a really long time—turned them off to some of the antics of some of the new people. But it’s all part of our community growing. I mean, I bet some of those people when we moved here in the sixties and the fifties and the forties, people probably thought we were new. So it’s just a constant, constant change.

KW: Now that a few years have passed since the case and you’ve had some time to reflect on it, would you say this has changed the way you feel about the Cooperstown area and your neighbors?

[TRACK 2, 23:10]

JH: Yes. Apparently when we moved here in the sixties, the community was a certain way. I had a phenomenal education—and all five of us had an excellent education—through the Cooperstown Central School District. And we were getting feelings that the community’s moving back to the way it was then. And we’re just getting a different shift of people. And again, I don’t interact a lot with this in here. I just think Cooperstown is very unique. Again, you’re from the Cazenovia area, and I think Cornell, Ithaca, it’s the same thing. It’s a similar community. And there’s a lot of talk about “buy local,” all this kind of stuff, which I think is wonderful, but there are a lot of people that can’t even afford food. And I can’t go to a farmer’s market and pay, you know, ten dollars for a dozen ears of corn, or whatever. So I think there’s still a little bit of disconnect between, if I could say, a regular person and some other people that have other views. I was at a meeting somewhere and we were talking about something about having to chop wood to heat the house. And the one woman in the back says, “Well we’re just very frugal.” And I thought to myself, you have no idea that there are people in your community that may live right next door to you that don’t have money to buy fuel. And they’re not out there chopping firewood because they’re frugal and whatever, they’re out there because that’s their only source of heat. And that kind of, I don’t know, of a disconnect. My mom went for a ride out to Chenango County the other day and she’s like, “Oh my god, there are some towns that look really, really, really bad.” So some of the discussion that came out of the gas drilling was the term “the hollowing out of New York State.” So as a general—not just agriculture but general New York State—is young people are leaving this state in droves. And going someplace else for jobs and raising their family. Maybe coming home here when they’re retired. But the better [amount] of their time is spent somewhere other than here.
KW:
How did that connect to the gas issue?

JH: There’s no jobs here. So the gas industry potentially could have brought in jobs. I had somebody tell me that, “I wouldn’t want my son or my daughter to be doing that kind of work.” Which I thought was—I was not appreciative of that comment because I have my hands dirty with manure and dirty all the time. I work with my hands. There is nothing wrong with someone that’s a welder for a trade, someone that’s a plumber as a trade, an electrician. Who comes out in the middle of the night after a rainstorm and puts your electricity back together so you can watch T.V. in the safety and the dryness of your house? It’s somebody that had some training and may not have had a college degree. There’s nothing wrong with that. College is not meant for everybody. And Pennsylvania was doing a very good study of a lot of these trade places having some schools. BOCES [Board of Cooperative Educational Studies] program, I think they’ve started a welding program out here. But that was part of the discussion of the gas drilling, was some of the jobs that it could bring into the community, at least in the beginning for some of it. And there are people I know locally that have gone out into the North Dakota fields and as a 20-year-old making 100, 120 thousand dollars as a welder right out of school.

KW: Did you get the sense from your interactions with the company that they would do things responsibly as far as they could?

JH: Yes. And there’s a tremendous amount of oversight. And I think the other thing that became very apparent is that people don’t trust the government. And if the government, New York State, is in charge of this process and you don’t trust New York State, I can’t change that. That’s something way above where I am. So a lot of this also illustrated the distrust that people have in their government. And although they say that the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] is overlooking what’s being done, the DEC don’t have enough people or the DEC this—just to name that one particular group. But it’s all through the whole thing, people just have distrust of the government in general. And so they would be very distrustful of having a government agency responsible for something like big oil or big gas or something like that. So again to repeat myself, it just brought out a lot of different dynamics.

KW: And in this scenario, what was the landowner’s responsibility in terms of any waste material, wastewater, anything like that?

JH: Everything was included, was supposed to be done by the company that came in. Depending on, of course, they have their geology setup so some of the comments were [that] they would put the well right in the middle of your best field. We never got that far, but some of that was based on, well that’s the ideal spot to put the well, geologically speaking. Some of the leases could be written that, “I want it set so it’s least disruptive to the farm management.” But one would hope that their whole purpose was to become a positive part of the community. Which I think I see down in Pennsylvania. You’ll always have people that don’t like it, but it’s amazing when you go down to Pennsylvania their road directions are, “Take the third dirt road on the right.” And these are major roads. And Pennsylvania has a lot of roads that are not paved. In New York State the only ones that aren’t paved are like seasonal roads on a hilltop, almost everything is paved. So again, different ways of working. They have come in and repaved stuff, made things tremendously better than what they had been before. But they want to be in the community. The ones that I knew wanted to be in the community. Wanted to be positive. They were good supporters of agriculture, they supported 4-H in Pennsylvania, a lot of the livestock auctions, a lot of different community things. And you’re always going to have people for or against. Some people probably were feeling that they were being bought, other people were happy to see the money come in and help some things.

[TRACK 2, 29:48]

KW: If you could sit down with one of the opponents of drilling and have an actual conversation with them, what would you want them to come away knowing about your position?

JH: I’ve actually had some of the higher-ups come to the farm and sat—and he said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell them that I’m here talking to the enemy.” We all had the same issue in mind, is protecting this area. I absolutely love this area, I grew up and lived here, wouldn’t want to see it changed. But change is always happening. Ommegang Brewery has grown tremendously. I don’t particularly enjoy every night they have a concert having cars parked five miles up the road so I can’t get in and out of my house. Someone else made that decision for me that that’s what was going to happen. Same thing with the baseball park, I used to pick strawberries on that field. I have pictures of my daughter picking strawberries, I picked strawberries there for years. That was a decision to build the park, it brings in an awful lot of money and that to the area. But it sure makes driving up and down I-28 with our tractors, pieces of equipment, trucks—it’s an extra truck hauling stuff back because you have all the traffic on corners and things like that. But back to your question—I have sat down with those people and realized we all really have the same goal. We love the community, just maybe [have] different views of how to make it grow, how to, you know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I am amazed when I go up to the Thruway and you see some of those windmills. I don’t know that I would want one in my backyard, but you know. Solar panels, they talk about those, I’ve thought about those. They take up an awful lot of land to get stuff done. But people are now talking about putting them up on top and having a parking garage underneath or to be able to park underneath them to some extent. So different things. And that’s actually the gentleman that came to talk to me asked me about some proposal for solar panels. But basically it’s the same thing, we all love the area, we just may have different views of what the future looks like. And I think the area really needs to be sure that we support our agriculture. They’re constantly looking for new agriculture—please don’t forget the agriculture that’s been here for a long time. And they are the ones that are putting a huge amount of money back into the local economy.

KW:Well Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time today to sit down and share your story. Are there any final things you’d like to say?

JH: No, I think in the 25 years that I’ve been home here I’ve just seen a tremendous amount of change in the community in terms of farmers going out of business, farmers leaving. And within the industry itself, in terms of how we deal with certain problems, certain issues, and technology and how that’s changing. And that as farmers we may choose different ways to make the product. But specifically with dairy, all milk is safe, all milk is good to drink, and we all are really conscious about taking care of our animals. Thank you.

KW: Thank you so much.

Duration

29:59- Part 1
33:03- Part 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

Track 1-02:50- Family's arrival in Cooperstown
Track 1-07:16- Importance of farming
Track 1-13:18- Technological advances in farming
Track 1-20:00- Relationship to the land
Track 1-24:11- Changes in farming over time
Track 2- 02:28- Why stay on the farm
Track 2-5:38- Hydrofracking
Track 2-23:10- Changes in Cooperstown

Files

Citation

Kate Webber, “Jennifer Huntington, November 01, 2015,” CGP Community Stories, accessed July 19, 2019, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/224.