Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Of Farms and Fracking (Cory)

At home in Pittsburgh for the past week, I've had plenty of occasion to see childhood memories in a new light. I was surprised when, a few days ago, some of my earliest farm memories were added to that list.

I'd heard about hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") - mostly because there's a documentary, Gasland, about it (which I haven't seen), and it was the focus of a recent episode of This American Life. Flipping through a Pittsburgh newspaper, I was surprised to see Trax Farms and hydraulic fracturing sharing a headline. Picking pumpkins and getting lost in cornstalk mazes at Trax Farms are some of my earliest farm memories. Well, apparently the farm has been involved in a bit of local controversy lately because the farmer has leased mineral rights on the farm for Marcellus shale drilling.

Hydraulic fracturing is a big deal in Pennsylvania right now, because there's a lot of it being done in the state. It's a controversial process. On the one hand, fracking taps into a huge store of energy and frees it for human consumption, creating jobs and stimulating the economy in the process. On the other hand, there are a lot of questions about the impact of the process on the environment and on public health - but those questions are unanswered right now, because there isn't enough information. There haven't been comprehensive investigations. When companies who are involved in fracking are asked what the health risks associated with fracking might be, they say they don't have enough information to answer. The same goes for environmental activists. Nobody has enough information to make a strong argument. And in the meantime, we keep fracking.

Here are some points from the article (linked above) that I found interesting:
  • Quote: Using all the land is part of farm life in Pennsylvania, company president Bob Trax said. Like its festivals, landscape supply store and deli, the gas well is another way to help Trax diversify and stay competitive. - The stress on "using all the land" and "diversification" comes up time and again in farming. We've seen farmers start composting, open stores and farmstands and restaurants, sell hayrides, rent large portions of their land for haying or grain, etc. - you've got to get creative, you've got to use all of your resources.
  • The effect on the community: some of the farm's customers are complaining. It's interesting that the customers are focused on the part the farm is playing in fracking, and not on the role of the companies actually doing the process. Or maybe the article's portraying it that way - which is also interesting.
So here's another article from the Pittsburgh City Paper that starts with fracking on Trax but goes deeper and brings a few other farms into the picture. Here we get the sentence, "Gas companies like Range Resources have seized on the idea that they are helping to rescue local farms." It seems like some drilling companies have figured out that, if they're seen as a viable diversification option for farms, a lot of people in agriculture will be open to the idea of fracking on their farm. (Though, clearly, plenty of farmers are pretty skeptical of fracking.)

And one last thing: towards the end of the second article, there's this great paragraph -

But when wells produce, it can pit farmers who have gas under their land against their neighbors, Snyder says. "There's a natural inclination for those who won't have drilling on their land to resent those that do. This is really going on in the rural community. Some people benefit, some people aren't - but are having to deal with the expense and mess of it."

This reminds me a lot of conversations we've had with some of our farmers about the kind of conflicts, jealousies, and resentment that can arise within the agricultural community when it comes to issues of selling land and/or development rights. Which all boils down to this: As a farmer, your land is your everything. Investments, assets, legacy, lifestyle. And it makes sense that you might get very territorial.

Fracking is still pretty new - at least, it hasn't been long since it was brought to public attention in Pennsylvania - and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. How will the agricultural community ultimately respond? How will customers and community respond to farms that do choose to allow fracking on their land? And what happens when - if ever - we do have enough information to know what the health/environmental effects of fracking are?