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August 3, 2005

Cowadunga! More Absurdity!

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In the far away distant land of California, concern about air quality has spawned a new law requiring air permits for all agricultural operations whose methane gas emissions exceed a certain threshold. I'm not making this up.

Allow me to help you understand this. It seems that dairy cows eat grass. It has numerous micro-organisms at work in each of the animal's four stomach compartments, which convert the grass into nourishment. This process produces methane gas. To make matters even worse, when cows walk, they cause fugitive dust. To be clear, cows walk and have bodily functions and California now wants to permit and regulate all of it.

As if there weren't enough controversy in the world, a disagreement has erupted over just how much gas a cow passes. Currently, according to a 1938 study, California regulators assume that a cow produces 12.8 pounds of methane a year. However, environmentalists disagree and contend that it is 20.6 pounds per cow. Industry groups estimate the number is closer to 5 pounds. Taxpayers in California have funded a $600,000 study to settle the disagreement.

Jim Slater, the Environmental Compliance Officer for Carroll County and I, as the chair of the Carroll County Environmental Advisory Council, work together on protecting the environment in a manner that also promotes industry, increases the tax base and attracts jobs. I have also served as chair of the Carroll County Right to Farm Agricultural Reconciliation Committee.

When I contacted Mr. Slater, I asked if he had any thoughts about the possibility of Maryland regulating bovine emissions. He responded that "yes, there is always a probability that Maryland could follow California's example, as do many states, in regards to environmental regulations."

Ever the scientist, Mr. Slater never-the-less fought back snickers and wondered aloud: "What will the control technology look like?" "Will there be front end and back end bovine emissions containment in the form of cow catalectic converters?" ". Once they decide to regulate farm animal emissions, domestic pets are not far behind."

Back on planet Earth, just what does this mean for you and me?

According to Stan Fultz, the Maryland Cooperative Extension Agent for Frederick County for Dairy Science, there are approximately 1,273 farms in Frederick County. The 2002 census of cattle in Frederick was 52,940. Of that number of cattle, approximately 25,000 are milk cows. The value of milk produced in Frederick County is over $50 million. Frederick has the largest inventory of beef cattle and milk cows in Maryland. Agriculture remains the number one industry in Maryland. Someone ought to share this information with the Maryland General Assembly.

If each one of these cows produces 20.6 pounds of methane, we have a potential explosive hazard of disastrous proportions. That's 515,000 pounds of fuel being produced by milk cows in Frederick County alone. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to imagine just what would happen if ole Bossie would inadvertently get near a spark and light up like the space shuttle taking off.

Now, more than ever, agribusiness understands that, like it or not, it now has a new "social contract" with the greater community to operate. Agriculture understands that simply feeding us is not enough. The end users of agricultural products are now so far removed from the actual production of food that the public is no longer familiar with the day-to-day struggles of food production and seems unwilling to give farmers any logical leeway in understanding a farmer's stewardship for the environment.

Farmers are quickly comprehending the new rules construct that in spite of folks complaining about farming operations with their mouth's full, farmers must now earn the social contract from the public in order to stay in business. Folks don't realize that farmers were the first environmentalists, and they have the biggest reason to be the best stewards of our natural resources.

Perhaps the biggest threat to agriculture today is the specter of increased, nonsensical over-regulation. The government attempting to permit and regulate the methane emissions from cows is absurd. How can the government regulate something that only God can control? It is not as if we can reprogram a cow or employ innovative environmental metrics to mitigate or ameliorate bovine emissions. Increasingly we can make a more environmentally friendly car. Not necessarily so with a cow.

It is this degree of absurdity that hampers environmental discussion and progress. Regulations such as this polarize the political discourse to such an extent that it renders many citizens skeptical about any green debate.

Responsible actors tune out not only the shouting matches, but are mystified by the esoteric language and maniacal out-of-context activism that too often colors the public debate between scientists, environmentalists, environmental advocacy NGOs, industry and average citizens who simply want to enjoy a green quality of life - the same green quality of life which attracts them to places such as Frederick County.

I think the American public longs for a sober, clearly worded, non-partisan explanation of why a discussion over our environmental future is taking place and how we can approach the evaluation of competing claims for increasing finite resources, with a view to changing the ways we impact our world. We need to take the long view on things.

Meanwhile, the more farms the government puts out of business, the more we increase development pressure by way of putting that many more acres of land on the market for growing houses instead of food. In the next 20 years, Maryland's population will increase by another million. Not all one million new folks have to live in Frederick County, but if we make the land available, they will come. It is one thing to preserve the agricultural land, but it is far more important to preserve the viability and success of the business of farming.

I'm sorry if I disturbed your day. I hope that I didn't give you any gas. Cowadunga!

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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