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See how a manure lagoon works and why farmers want to build even more of them

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Published on Jun 29, 2017

If you buy a house on the 9 million acres of agricultural districts in New York state, you sign a disclosure form that says the farmers near you have the "right to farm" even when it causes noise, dust and odors.

Still, when a farmer decides to build a lagoon to store millions of gallons of liquid manure, the neighbors are often disappointed to find out they have little say in the matter. They can also be shocked to hear that government sometimes requires manure storage and even helps pay for it.

Since 1994, 461 manure storages have been built with state financial help, according to the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. Others are privately or federally funded.

The "Right to Farm" is a state law that protects 25,316 farms on 6.5 million of those 9-million acres of agricultural districts. The rest of that land is occupied by people who do not farm.

Dan Palladino, president of the Onondaga County Farm Bureau, encourages farmers to be proactive and share their plans even when it isn't required.

"We have to all work together," Palladino said. "If we're in an agricultural district, we have to understand what the farmer needs to do and we have to understand what the public needs and what we can do to help them."

Mike McMahon, of McMahon's EZ Acres in Homer, allowed us to fly a drone over the lagoon on his dairy farm and explained how it was designed.

McMahon, other farmers and government officials say storage is the best practice to protect the environment from runoff.

Storage allows farmers to spread manure on fields on only the best days – when the soil is dry and less likely to run off of wet and frozen ground into lakes and streams.

What kinds of lagoons are built in New York state?

Before a lagoon is built, farmers test the make-up and quality of the soil to understand the geology of the site, said Mark Burger, executive director of the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District.

If the soil can support an earthen lagoon, it can be dug into the ground and lined with clay, he said. Some earthen lagoons are also reinforced with concrete bottoms or walls.

If the soil does not support an earthen lagoon, farmers can use a plastic product called "octaform." It has a series of hollow, plastic rectangular chambers filled with concrete. That type of storage is also easy to cover to keep out rain or to digest methane gas for energy.

Farmers also consider the type of bedding they use when they choose the type of material to use in lagoon construction, he said. The bedding goes into the lagoon along with the manure.

For example, if the animals bed on sand, farmers like to build a concrete floor to make it easier to capture the sand and use it on the soil, he said.

Soil and water conservation districts help small farms implement official environmental management plans, which address manure storage and other issues, state officials said.

Large industrial farms are regulated through a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) permit, which requires a comprehensive nutrient management plan that takes into account the farm's slopes, nearby waterways, soil erosion potential, farmstead facilities and nutrient sources.

Engineers must also work within USDA standards and must be able to divert surface groundwater and contain the precipitation that falls into the storage.

"You've got highly trained professionals out there, taking these corings or these trenchings and analyzing the soil and the geology to make that determination," he said. "It's not just you and I going out there to do it."

How many times have they leaked?

There have been three manure storage overflows and one leak in the last five years in the Central New York region, which generally covers Oswego to Broome counties, according to the DEC.

The latest incident is still under investigation. In February, a structural issue with a lagoon forced farmers to spread manure on snow on an unusually warm winter day. The snow melted, causing manure to flow into Cayuga Lake.

In 2013, manure overflowed into a small tributary from a storage at Ashland Farms, in Cayuga County. The DEC issued a $3,000 fine and the farm was required to increase the size of the storage.

EFS Farm, in Madison County, was assessed a $750 penalty after an overflow in 2013. The manure ponded in a field and did not reach surface water, according to the DEC.

O'Hare Dairy II, in Chenango County, had an overflow in 2011 that did reach surface water. The DEC assessed a $1,750 penalty and required repairs and an emergency action plan.

Video by Michelle Breidenbach, Christa Lemczak and N. Scott Trimble. Illustrations by Peter Allen. Music by MK2. Additional content: Google Earth and New York State Department of Agriculture

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