Farming and Fracking Don’t Mix: A Farmer Speaks Out

Natural gas exploratory well on the property next door to Greg Swartz's Willow Wisp Organic Farm. Photo and video from Maverick Video Productions. Gallery photos courtesy of Greg Swartz.

Imagine that you live on a productive, award-winning 12-acre organic farm. The 50-plus vegetables and herbs you grow depend entirely on the uncompromised health and integrity of your soil, water and air. You've invested so much time and sweat, not to mention money, into the farm that reflects your values, including your respect for the natural world.

Now imagine that a natural gas well is set up in plain sight from your front porch on a neighbor’s adjacent property. This rig is exploring for natural gas with the intent to use the extraction method called high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The process blasts open fissures in underground shale-rock formations by injecting a high pressure combination of fluids, chemicals and proppants (each company’s formula is a closely guarded secret including some known carcinogens like benzene), causing the fossil fuel to flow to the production well. From years of studying fracking, you know that the gas and oil companies' claims of safety and minimal environmental impacts are suspect because wherever fracking goes, human health risks and pollution tend to follow.

Greg Swartz, owner of Willow Wisp Organic Farm, doesn’t need to imagine this scenario because he and his family are embroiled in this situation. His farm, located a few miles from the Delaware River in northern Pennsylvania, places him squarely in the middle of a heated debate taking place not just in the state, but throughout the country. What further complicates matters for fracking in that region is the great Delaware River Basin provides drinking water to over 15 million people in cities like New York City, Philadelphia, Allentown, Camden, New Jersey, and many other smaller localities. The Delaware River Basin Commission, a four-state, five-member body that governs the river and basin, currently has a fracking moratorium while they complete a final set of rules on the extraction process for this extremely sensitive watershed.

I mean, after several years of looking into this, my basic conclusion is this: That high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing and food production are not compatible land uses. You can’t have the two coexisting; it doesn’t work.

The debate raging around fracking is very familiar to Greg: Fracking offers a potential economic boost, particularly for landowners, like some of his neighbors, who have signed leases with natural gas companies, but carries with it potential health and safety hazards and environmental degradation. As a landowner and a productive farmer, Greg knows the intrinsic value of his land, air and water for his livelihood now and into the future.

Listen to my interview with Greg as he shares his experiences, his deep commitment to his farm, his views on the fundamental role of property rights in the debate and his concern about the specter of fracking that threatens the very existence of his farm. Below you can get a taste of our compelling conversation. You can also download a podcast of the full conversation or the full transcript. Also, see a video interview of Greg Swartz on his beautiful farm, courtesy of Maverick Video Productions.

What are the concerns that you have with fracking, being that it’s on your doorstep, and with regards to your land, particularly as a productive organic farmer?

Yeah, I mean, after several years of looking into this, my basic conclusion is this: That high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing and food production are not compatible land uses. You can’t have the two coexisting; it doesn’t work. And here are the reasons: First of all, there is a significant risk of surface water and groundwater contamination, both during drilling processes as well as the hydraulic fracturing as well as during the movement of the fracking wastewater. There are massive amounts of contaminated water that is involved in this process; anywhere from three to five million gallons per fracked well. So in terms of the actual penetration of the earth, the mixing of the different strata of the earth, and then the injection of these unregulated chemicals into the earth, there is so many possibilities for A, human error; B, human – how do I say it, error on purpose, I'm not quite sure what the right way to say that is.

It must really concern you as a farmer yourself and then also as an organic farmer where you really have high standards and meet certifications and that sort of thing. So how is the potential fracking on an adjoining property affecting buyers of your produce right now, or shares of CSA, that sort of thing?

Yes, right now we haven’t had that impact. I did hear, kind of through the grapevine, a little bit of people starting to be concerned last year with the drilling of this test well. But again, it wasn’t fracked so it didn’t quite hit that threshold. So when it actually happens, there’s two things that are going to happen. There may be the customer fallout, but more likely than that, before that point is, I have to make a decision about the safety of the food that we sell. And even before that I have to make a decision about it being safe to live here for myself, my wife, and my two and a half year old son. And it’s going to be really hard to identify what that threshold is.

You know, two years ago, just before we invested another six figures in infrastructure here on the farm, my wife, Tannis and I had that conversation. It was either, we get out now, right this minute, don’t do anything else here and leave. Or we invest that six figures, do it for as long as we can, and while we're doing it, fight as much as we can to regulate this thing. So here we are, we've invested a bunch of money, a lot of time, a lot of the assets are not recoverable. Some of the things, like a tractor, we can bring that with us. But investing in our soil, which is the core principle of organic farming, we can’t take that with us. We can’t take a fence with us, etc. You know, we definitely put stuff down that we can’t take, but we just made the decision that we had to do it. We have to, we are here, we've got to do it. We've got to grow food for our community. Each of us have invested many, many years, more than a decade in the community. We have strong connections, great friends, strong business connections. You know, it’s our home, it’s the right place to be and we weren’t willing to walk away. All of that said though, we're still kind of like on the edge, like at any time, once the regulatory landscapes changes, once they actually, once the gas companies get everything in a row and start drilling, we're going to have to make that choice and do it, and leave. And I don’t think our neighbors really get it.

Greg Swartz’s list of notable hydraulic fracturing watchdog organizations working to protect the Delaware River and River Basin:

Responses to "Farming and Fracking Don’t Mix: A Farmer Speaks Out"
The views and opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Ecocentric Blog or GRACE Communications Foundation.

  1. whats crohns disease

    We are a bunch of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community. Your site offered us with useful info to work on. You’ve performed a formidable activity and our whole neighborhood shall be thankful to you.

  2. Kai Olson-Sawyer

    @ Adron and Mary - Thanks for commenting on what must be a difficult subject for you. As a PA native with family still residing in the state, I know that fracking is THE local issue commanding attention. This is particularly true in your area which is bei

  3. Adron and Mary

    We are experiencing the exact same dilemma, being growers five miles south of Dimock PA with a two and a half year old daughter. This is a great injustice and after all of the concerned growers and consumers go to Vermont to escape the experiment what wil

  4. Krys

    Oh, Greg... I am so sorry. I remember how happy and excited you were when you bought fenceposts from us to fence the land to start your farm! Oh, how I wish that those fenceposts could keep pollution from invading your farm, but, I know that, once on the surface and in the atmosphere and water, this filth contaminates us all! That’s why I, too, am working to end the practice of hydrofracking world-wide and usher in the age of energy from renewable resources. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  5. Mark Zeslitz

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this important issue

  6. Kai Olson-Sawyer

    @ Tara - I, too, am very interested in hearing from landowners that sign mineral right leases with oil and gas companies. In the interview, Greg mentions his neighbor’s beliefs and rationales for natural gas extraction on his property. What it comes down

  7. Tara

    It would be interesting to hear the other side of the story from the land owner that allowed the Natural Gas company to perform fracking on their property. Do they know the understand the concern?

  8. Sam

    On my recent comment correction the last word :fracking it printed frocking as I fat fingered the keyboard

  9. Sam

    That’s really terrible- I pray that ppl increase environmental awareness relying more on solar energy and wind energy. Food comes first since it consists of the basic 3 human needs: food clean and pure+ clean drinking water+ safety. All else on the pyramid consists of greed rather than need. I will remember to light an incense of prayer for the success in setting the ignorant mind of some to a greater common sense. Humans in that respect can be less cognizant of survival than certain animal species. Keep the faith and hopefully the stupor will be slapped out of them by Divine Law and a permanent halt put to fracking

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