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Farm wins national sustainability award

Mike McMahon’s environmental efforts go beyond 2,300-acre dairy

Glenn Coin

Planting thousands of willow trees to shade trout streams doesn’t sound like a job for a dairy farmer.

But for Mike McMahon, owner and operator of the E-Z Acres farm in Homer, it’s what environmentally conscious farmers should be doing. Planting trees along two streams that run through his 800-cow farm is just one of many steps he has taken to reduce the farm’s environmental impact.

The 2,300-acre farm sprawls across three watersheds, including that of Skaneateles Lake, the unfiltered source of drinking water for Syracuse; and also sits atop the underground water source for the village of Homer and the city of Cortland. “If we weren’t doing things right,” McMahon said, “we could make life miserable for a lot of people.”

E-Z Acres is doing something right: The farm won the national top prize for “Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability” at this year’s U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards. Three years ago, the farm took home New York state’s top environmental honor, the Agricultural Environmental Management Award.

Being mindful of the environment isn’t easy, or cheap. McMahon spent about $760,000 on a 3.5-million gallon manure lagoon — double the original budget — but created what he called the “Taj Mahal of manure systems.”

E-Z Acres also uses computers to “precision-feed” the cows and waste as little as possible of the 140,000 pounds of feed consumed each day. McMahon rotates crops, tests the soil for nutrient levels, plants grass to prevent erosion, and keeps track of how much manure can be applied and when.

McMahon also takes samples from five wells, from the farm all the way down into the valley at the village well. Since 1997, he said, those tests reveals that nitrate levels in the water dropped almost in half.

Changing weather patterns are making environmental stewardship more challenging, McMahon said. He said there are more torrential, erosion-causing downpours than in the past. “We’ve had three 100-year storms in nine years,” he said. “Whether you believe in climate change or not, it’s here and it’s happening.”

McMahon’s environmental efforts extend beyond the farm. He sits on 12 boards, and chairs five of them, including the Skaneateles Lake Watershed Agricultural Program Review Committee. About a third of the farm lies in the Skaneateles Lake watershed.

“When you have this much land,” he said, “it’s important to be involved.”

Dairy farmer Mike McMahon, who owns E-Z Acres in Homer, looks at willow trees he planted along a stream that runs through his 2,300-acre farm. In May, E-Z Acres won the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award at the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards in Chicago.

Glenn Coin, gcoin@syr

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