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Fracking the Farm: Impacts on Farming and Animal Health

This is part 1 of a series of articles on Fracking the Farm.

Some farmers look at potential Marcellus shale drilling as a boon: Lease rentals and royalties could make it possible to pass the family farm to the next generation. Others fear that the highly industrialized drilling process will contaminate land, water, and, ultimately, the food we eat.

When Carol French signed a gas lease, she never dreamed that half a dozen years later she’d be warning other farmers to think twice.

French, a dairy farmer in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, lives in the midst of the drill zone. The last time she counted, there were nine active wells located within a mile of her farm. Carolyn Knapp, an organic dairy farmer, lives just a couple miles away. Six years ago she was concerned
that signing a lease might affect her organic status. It didn’t. Now, with a handful of wells drilled nearby, she worries about other ways that gas drilling and exploration could impact her operation.

The problem: Gas leases do not protect farmland. Once those leases are signed, say Knapp and French, farmers lose control over their land. Gas companies decide where to place access roads, well pads, pipelines, and compressors.

Some small farmers view gas leasing as a way to gain wealth and keep the farm going, says French. Indeed, some strike it rich. She mentions one farmer who leased 500 acres and now has 8 producing wells on his land. “He’s getting $90,000 each month in royalty checks,” she says, “but Chesapeake [Energy Corporation] still hasn’t paid my neighbors for the well pads on their properties.”

Drilling Interferes with Farming Drilling can interrupt normal farming activities.

One of French’s neighbors ended up with a well pad sited behind his barn, effectively cutting off easy access to the fields and pasture. The farmer is earning royalties, French says—about $400/month. But he sold his cows because the drilling operations made it too hard to keep on farming.

Knapp, who integrates intensive grazing into her dairy operation, said says planned to dig a 20-acre water impoundment—a pond built to store fresh water and drilling waste fluids—right in the middle of land that’s part of her rotational grazing system.

Agricultural land is hit particularly hard, say Penn State extension educators Gary Sheppard and Mark Madden. Over the past four years drilling
has affected nearly 7,500 acres of Bradford County farmland. It’s a rough calculation, Madden admits, based on an assumption that each well impacts anywhere from half an acre to two acres. But his estimates are backed up by real numbers; Penn State crop and soils professor Patrick Drohan’s research shows that farmland makes up about 62 percent of the acreage aff ected by drilling.

Sheppard agrees that drilling activities can change the workability of a farming landscape. “It can be as simple as having to raise and lower implements each time they cross a road,” he says. On the other hand, some farmers higher wages for those with commercial driver’s licenses) and it’s clear that the Marcellus boom is a bust for some farmers.

 

Author: Sue Smith-Heavenrich
Date: 2012

 

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