OWASCO — Partners for Healthy Watersheds held its second public discussion Monday night, and the subject matter — manure — caused some heated exchanges.

The new watershed organization is made up of agricultural groups including the American Dairy Association North East, the Cayuga County Farm Bureau, the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition and the North East Dairy Producers Association. Dirk Young, John Fleming and Jon Patterson spearheaded the forum at the O'Hara Agricultural Museum, focusing on large dairy farms and how they store, treat and apply manure.

Combined the three farms have approximately 3,900 cows in Cayuga, Onondaga and Tompkins counties. They explained how farms have become more efficient at feeding to get more milk and less manure. They discussed manure lagoons, which have months of storage to keep from spreading in the fall and winter. They're costly to build and maintain — hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Terry Lattimore, of Auburn, said manure lagoons eventually leak. Nutrient run-off from farms has been one of the most discussed sources of phosphorous and nitrogen in watersheds, though it's not the only source. With Owasco Lake struggling with toxic blue-green algae blooms threatening the drinking water supply, Lattimore stood up.

"You think people are mad at you for the odor?" he said. "Wait until they can't drink the water."

Young pounded the table.

"Why the hell do you say that?" he said. "You're fake news."

The crowd laughed. 

But the underlying tension was in the room. All three panelists explained the risk to embark on new green technologies. Biodigesters, for example, are what Young called a "pain in the butt." Patterson has one, too, and both farmers thought the electricity generated from the methane gas could be profitable. But they said they're lucky if they break even. The market is too competitive, and most of the time they burn off their methane through a flare.

During the presentation, John Halfman, professor at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, raised his hand.

"I wish all of the farmers do what you three guys are doing at the front of the room," he said. 

After a pause the discussion continued, but later, Halfman raised his hand again. 

"You guys are doing a tremendous job in trying to put in all sorts of buffer strips and trying to keep the soil on your land," he said. "If you have to guess, what percentage of the farmers within the Owasco Lake watershed do similar efforts?"

Young said there are more and more every year. Halfman pressed, asking if it was like 5 percent, or 95 percent.

"I don't have any idea," Patterson said.

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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