'Chesapeake Milk' plan pays off Marketing: Dairy farmers who have agreed to participate in a project to run a bay-friendly operation will receive a bonus.

On The Bay

May 15, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

DRINK YOUR way to a cleaner bay. Buy Chesapeake Milk.

Assuming a test-marketing project begins next month as planned, consumers can choose to directly reward dairy farmers who go the extra step toward a bay-friendly operation.

Here's how it will work, according to project sponsors that include Pennsylvania State University, the Rodale Institute and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Chesapeake Milk" will be sold in half-gallon cartons at retailers across Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Northern Virginia who agree to carry it.

It will cost a nickel extra, and it is no different from any other milk in the grocery display case. Neither does it come from a specific dairy farm, because milk is pooled by large, regional bottlers (Sunnydale Farms of Brooklyn, N.Y., in this case).

The nickel premium will go to about 20 dairy farmers in three southeastern Pennsylvania counties, all within the bay's drainage basin.

They have agreed to an annual evaluation of how well they control polluted runoff from barnyards, how they deal with septic systems and milk-house wastes, and whether they keep cattle fenced away from streams that flow into the bay.

Such improvements are particularly critical in Pennsylvania. Dairy is the state's biggest agricultural industry, but the bulk of dairy farms are not covered by a state law aimed at reducing pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff. The nutrients are prime bay pollutants.

Roughly half of the extra nickel on each carton of Chesapeake Milk sold will go for bonuses to farmers who score more than 80 of 100 possible points on the environmental evaluation.

That includes seven or eight of the 20 who are participating. The bonus will be pegged to a dairy farmer's total milk production, and could be worth several thousand dollars a year.

The other half of the nickel premium goes for a fund to pay the rest of the participants 75 percent of the cost of upgrading their operations to qualify for the bonus.

This "cost share" is different from the many traditional government cost-share programs that help farmers improve water quality, says Les Lanyon, a professor of agronomy at Penn State.

The milk premium, he explains, is "performance based," rewarding farmers who are "committed to excellence." It also allows the farmers to innovate by giving them a target for water quality rather than prescribing how to achieve it.

Cost-share programs normally go to the worst pollution problems, which can maximize the cleanup per dollar. But concerns have been raised in Pennsylvania that this sometimes directs big sums on virtually hopeless cases, such as old farms located in flood plains next to streams.

Lanyon, who has worked with farmers for years on ways to reduce polluted runoff, has been pushing the idea of environmentally friendly or "green" milk for some time.

"We pretty quickly decided not to try to market milk as 'green,' " he said.

He said Chesapeake Milk is a unique pilot project in that it "links farmers and consumers directly." The dream is that it could one day spread to dairy farmers elsewhere in the bay region.

It's a concept with great potential, and not just for dairy farms. I hope it eventually affords all residents of the six-state bay watershed (population nearly 15 million) a clear chance to put their money where their mouth is when they say they want a cleaner environment.

As we inexorably add millions more people to the bay region in the next few decades, it will become increasingly critical that all of us make personal choices to place less strain on our natural resources.

The car you will drive -- how polluting? The home you buy -- how much farm and forest did it usurp? The food you eat -- how bay-friendly was its production?

All these will count more heavily as our numbers increase, and as laws and regulations reach points of diminishing returns in terms of pollution reduction.

I like to think, if Chesapeake Milk succeeds, can Chesapeake Chicken be far behind?

On at least two fronts, events are unfolding that might give consumers of poultry a way to vote the bay with their grocery money.

Tyson Foods Inc. agreed last week to speed pollution controls on its processing plants and its growers' farms in settlement of a federal water-quality lawsuit.

Its competitors are proceeding along similar lines in Maryland, but on a significantly slower schedule allowed by the state's new nutrient-control law.

Will Tyson use this as a marketing tool? Will consumers choose a brand that is doing for the bay what other poultry companies won't do for years?

As the Chesapeake Milk marketing slogan says: "Your choice makes a difference."

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has begun an exploratory effort to gauge interest among poultry growers in forming a co-operative that would process and market its own chickens, independent of the Tysons, Perdues and others.

The aim would be, according to the foundation's agricultural expert, Michael Heller, "a whole system, environmentally sustainable, economically better for the grower and socially supportive of local communities."

The milk project sponsors stress they are not trying to supplant traditional environmental regulation, but rather to recognize that without help from other, innovative approaches, we simply can't expect to restore the bay.

For more information on Chesapeake Milk, call Rodale's Lori Sandman at the Dairy Network Partnership, 610-683-1400, or fax, 610-683-8548.

Also, tell the people at your grocery store to check it out, or send them a copy of this column.

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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