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Reception of green farming methods vary hesitation to hope

Farmer Bryan Strzelec pets some of his calves at Erba Verde Farms in East Aurora. The trio of black calves reach out toward Strzelec with their noses from behind the gate of their pen.
Alex Simone
/
WBFO-NPR
Farmer Bryan Strzelec pets some of his calves at Erba Verde Farms in East Aurora.

A major Buffalo-based business is among a group of food producers working to decrease methane emissions from dairy production, but the practicality of those efforts is up for debate.

The locally based Lactalis USA already is experimenting with reductive options, like flax-based cattle feed, and means of capturing methane, said Britt Lundgren, Lactalis USA Senior Director of Sustainability and Government Affairs.

“We're looking for feed ingredients that can help really reduce those methane emissions, but don't otherwise have a negative impact on the cow’s health," she said. "Some of the farms that supply the Lactalis plant in Buffalo are going to participate in a trial this year where they feed the cows something called TradiLin, which is basically just a flax seed that's been heat-treated.”

The full action plans from each of the six companies working with EDF won’t be released until next year.

Lactalis doesn’t have complete numbers for methane pollution yet.

But subsidiary brand Stonyfield Organic generated an estimated carbon footprint of nearly 280,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2021, including nearly 80,000 metric tons from methane, according to Lactalis.

One of Stonyfield’s major efforts is supporting seaweed-based feed research.

According to Lactalis, the experimental option could reduce Stonyfield’s total emissions by about 13%, if successful.

East Aurora farmer Bryan Strzelec believes many of the efforts are trying to initiate change the wrong way. Strzelec operates a small farm with about 20 head of cattle, but has experience with farms that house thousands of cattle.

Having that much livestock makes it too difficult to implement changes that actually make a positive environmental impact.

“It's like we're the Titanic heading for an iceberg. It's really hard to turn that thing around, and our food system is really hard to change on a dime," he said. "Trying to figure out ways to offset the environmental damage, or all those things, it seems so much easier than trying to change the system as a whole. And so, you know, we are an answer to some of that, but we're not the solution because of the food policy and agri-grower policy in this country.”

Strzelec cites pasture-based feed methods as being a more positive option, which is in line with methods being used at some Lactalis-partnered farms.

It’s important to keep efforts adaptable depending on each farm’s capabilities, said Katie Anderson, EDF’s Senior Director of Business, Food and Forests.

“Each one has a different business model. Each one has different geographic reach. Each one has a different way of communicating to consumers," she said. "This isn't about making everybody look exactly the same. It's about, again, getting aligned on what, what it means to act on methane. And what we need to be seeing in that specific area.”

Effectively reducing emissions also differs depending on the farmer. Storing waste has different concerns depending whether it’s solid or liquid. Liquid waste reduces concerns with runoff and groundwater, but solid storage has less methane emissions, Anderson said.

Using a methane digester to capture gas and convert to heat or electricity for the farm, or using a solid separator, are options but Lundgren says those aren’t always feasible.

The goal for Lactalis is net zero emissions by 2050.

The goals of EDF and Lactalis feel achievable because the technological requirements already exist, said Chair Mark Swihart of the University at Buffalo Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“Even the most sophisticated have sort of those manure management treatment technologies," he said. "I don't think they require any new science or engineering and, you know, maybe not every piece can be bought off the shelf, but you could have somebody build it.”

But all the changes can put farmers in a difficult situation, regardless of their farming preferences, Strzelec said.

"There's a lot of publicity about, you know, farmers being the cause of climate change, and all these things, there's a certain amount of angst against them," he said. "Conventional farmers are ... put some on the defensive, and really, they're only trying to produce what the system has asked them to produce. And I think on the other end is a sustainable farm.

There's a lot of idealism, and my saying is that I think idealism, don't let idealism be a hindrance to progress. And so, you have to kind of marry the two in a way to make that transition, not forgetting the idealism of what you're trying to accomplish."