ENVIRONMENT: Farmers finding roles in pollution prevention

H.586 brings comments during St. Albans hearing

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

Just
The Facts

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Every pound of phosphorous …  is a pound too many.

- Julie Moore, lake scientist

ST. ALBANS — Several farmers supported a relaxation of the winter spreading ban for manure, while water quality advocates pointed out that a proposed water quality bill does little to address the primary sources of phosphorous in Lake Champlain. Those comments were heard during a public hearing held by the House Agriculture Committee in St. Albans on Thursday.

About 30 people attended the hearing on H. 586 held at the St. Albans Historical Museum.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, committee chair, started by saying that the bill is being rewritten in the committee on Fish, Wildlife and Natural Resources. The excise tax on flushable products and a provision requiring the exclusion of all livestock from waters of the state are likely to be removed, she said.

The bill, Partridge said, is an attempt to be proactive in terms of water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of establishing new pollution limits for Lake Champlain that will require Vermont to reduce the amount of phosphorous reaching the lake by 190 metric tons annually.

Partridge noted that other major water bodies in the state, Lake Memphremagog and the Connecticut River, also have pollution limits, known as a total maximum daily load (TMDL).

Currently, the Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets requires large and medium farms to get pollution permits from the state for their manure. Those farms are also required to have nutrient management plans (NMPs).

As part of the effort to meet the phosphorous limits under the TMDL for Lake Champlain, the state agriculture agency and the Agency of Natural Resources have proposed a certification program for smaller farms that would have to certify they ware  in compliance with the state’s accepted agricultural practices (AAPs). The agriculture agency has hired a small farm inspector to work with farmers to insure they understand and are following the practices.

One of the questions for the Vermont Legislature is defining a small farm.

Roger Rainville, of Alburgh, suggested the state inspect only farms with 20 cows or 20,000 pounds of livestock, while also educating the public about their obligations.

“We need to make sure the public knows if they have animals they’re held accountable under AAPs,” said Rainville, who heads the Farmers Watershed Alliance. Rainville’s Borderview Farm is also the site of ongoing research by the University of Vermont Extension Service, and he was a member of an advisory committee that provided recommendations on changes to agricultural practices to improve water quality.

Rainville said many small farmers aren’t aware that they, too, have to follow the AAPs. He supported the proposed certification program, which would require farmers to certify they are following those rules. “They just need to be knowledgeable of what their responsibilities are,” he said.

Kent Henderson of the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain proposed an alternative: redefining medium farms so that farms with 150 cows must secure permits. In a few years, farms with 100 cows could be added to the program, he suggested.

Both Rainville and Alisha Sawyer supported the idea of smart buffers that would vary based on land use and typography. Currently, the state sets the size of buffers at 25 feet from a stream or river and 10 feet from a ditch.

Speaking on behalf of the Missisquoi River Basin Association and the Franklin Watershed Committee, Sawyer also pointed to the importance of enforcement. “People need to know they’re expected to follow it, and there’s a consequence if you don’t,” she said.

The Ag. agency and Agency of Natural Resources have proposed requiring nutrient management plans for small farms. How in depth those plans need to be is still an open question.

Rainville said specialists don’t want to write nutrient management plans to the same standard for small farms as are required of large and medium farms. Developing the plan for 100 acres takes almost as much work as developing a plan for 500 acres, he said.

The complex plans involve soil tests and work to determine the risk of erosion from fields.

Nutrient management can help farmers reduce costs by identifying where, when, and how much nutrients are needed based upon soil conditions and the crops being grown.

“Nutrient management plans are excellent,” said Highgate farmer Richard Noel. “I started doing this in the 1970s. You know why? Because it’s profitable.”

Even the farmers required to have such plans don’t always follow them, according to agronomist Paul Stanley. Stanley spoke of doing an nutrient plan, presenting it to the farmer, and discovering a year later that it hadn’t been used.

Nutrient management plans are a tool for measuring the loss of phosphorous from fields based on soil conditions, topography and agronomic practices .

Stanley said that when, and if, half of all farm land is managed based on the phosphorous index in the farm’s nutrient management plan, then “we’re not going to have the problem that we have in this lake.”

A  former farm inspector, he also spoke of the importance of having inspectors who could also teach. “We need to work on enforcement, management and education,” he said. “It’s not the size of the farm, it’s how it’s managed.”

Manure spreading

A proposal to relax the winter spreading ban, which runs from Dec. 15 to April 1, drew the most comments. Under the proposal, farmers in full compliance with AAPs, including having and following a nutrient, plan, could seek permission to spread on some fields during the winter.

Tom Gates of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, noted that field conditions can vary from year to year. “When April 1 hits, there’s times when we have two feet of snow on the ground,” he said.

St. Albans Co-op Vice President Jack Parent pointed out that spreading is occurring now in parts of New York State. “Weather conditions, field conditions (are) way more important than a date on the calendar,” he said.

To empty a manure pit by Dec. 15, “all you need is a bigger tractor,” he said.

Scientist Don Meals, who was involved in developing the current AAPs and the ban, had a different view.

Ending the winter ban could lead to a 3- to 5-fold increase in the amount of phosphorous coming off of the land, he said, citing a study from New York State.

The amount of snow on the ground, how the snow melts, how deeply frozen the ground is and how it thaws are all factors influencing runoff from spreading, according to Meals. “There really is no good science out there to say when it’s okay to spread,” he said.

“We know it is not right to spread manure on frozen ground,” said Henderson, a retired veterinarian who specialized in dairy cows. But it’s also not right to spread “half your manure two weeks before the ban,” he added.

Manure spreading should be looked at in the context of other agronomic practices such as manure injection and cover cropping, he said.

Franklin farmer Wayne Fiske supported the ban, suggesting some farmers need to increase their capacity to store manure. “Farms that have increased their cow size without paying attention to pit size,” are the ones how have difficulty following the ban, he said.

Infiltrate and cover

For scientist Julie Moore, the “lake czar” under Gov. Jim Douglas, H. 586 does not address the biggest sources of phosphorous.

According to EPA’s analysis, there are three major sources of phosphorous in Lake Champlain – developed land, which is 15 percent; cropland, which is 35 percent; and streambank erosion, which is just over 20 percent. Together, those sources account for 70 percent of the phosphorous, Moore noted.

But H. 586 focuses on farmsteads, livestock exclusion and roads.

“Every pound of phosphorous at this point is a pound too many, but we’re not going to the biggest sources right now,” said Moore.

Infiltrating stormwater into the ground as close as possible to where it falls will help to reduce runoff from developed lands and streambank erosion.

Reducing loss of soil from fields and improving manure management with better agronomic practices would help stop the flow of phosphorous into the lake from croplands. “The goal should probably be constant cover,” said Moore.

She pointed to a line in the bill requiring farmers to address erosion caused by gullies that form on fields, calling it “incredibly important.” Gully erosion “is localized but it can be incredibly important in terms of the amount of soil moving into our streams,” said Moore.

Her comments were echoed by Denise Smith of the Friends of the Northern Lake. “Infiltration and cover are the way we’re going to solve this problem, not fencing six cows out of a stream,” she said.

Several speakers, including Smith, Henderson and Rainville, pointed to the work that has been done voluntarily by farmers within the watershed.

Rainville pointed to the more than 150 practices the Farmers Watershed Alliance has implemented in recent years. “We do this very inexpensively,” he said.

When allocating funds for lake cleanup, “We need to prioritize where we spend these dollars so we have the biggest impact,” he said.

When the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee has finished its rewrite of H. 586, the bill will move to the Agriculture Committee. From there it may go to other committees such as Appropriations or Ways and Means depending on the content of the bill, before finally going to the House floor for a vote.