Farmers wade in on rules

State Ag. officials take questions, answer concerns

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

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The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — Planting of cover crops, timing of the winter ban on manure spreading and creation of buffers were on the minds of farmers Tuesday at a meeting about proposed required agricultural practices (RAPs).

The RAPs must be in place by July 1, according to the Vermont Clean Water Act, which was passed last session by the Vermont Legislature.

“We’re anxious to get your input,” Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross told the approximately 50 people who attended the public meeting at the St. Albans Historical Society Tuesday morning.

Farmers are not the only ones required to make changes, he told the crowd. Developers, municipalities and the Agency of Transportation are all being required to meet new standards for reducing and managing stormwater.

“We need to help the agricultural community do their job and not impact the waters of the state,” said Ross, who also cited the economic impact of Vermont agriculture.

Lots of questions

Ag. Dipietro, deputy director of agricultural resource management, presented the proposed RAPs, but began with what is required of agriculture to meet water quality standards. “We’ve got a really big lift in terms of agriculture,” she said.

One farmer asked who will be held responsible for violations of manure spreading requirements, the farmer or the custom cut operator doing the spreading.

Dipietro explained that the new rules require training and certification for custom cut operators to insure they can read a farm’s nutrient management plan (NMP). If the custom cut operator didn’t follow the NMP, then the responsibility is his, but if the farmer gave them a bad NMP, then the responsibility is the farmer’s.

A woman operating a small farm asked about having to move freestanding stacks of manure within six months. Between the winter spreading ban and a wet spring, it can easily be more than six months before farmers can spread, she said.

Dipietro said stacks having no containment must be moved within six months. However, the agency doesn’t want manure moved to poor sites, she added. The main point is that manure piles can’t simply be left to sit for unlimited amounts of time. “It really needs to be a managed resource,” Dipietro said.

Another farmer also expressed concern about wet springs. “We may be in May before we can spread,” he said. As the window for spreading narrows, farmers may do things they wouldn’t normally.

Dipietro replied that although the winter spreading ban is included in the RAPs, it is set by the Legislature and would require legislative change. She added that pits should be designed for 230 days of manure storage and the ban is just 106 days.

Amanda St. Pierre, of Berkshire, encouraged her fellow farmers to consider seeking adjustments to the ban. “It’s not just pit storage,” she said. “It’s how do we get our work done?”

In addition to spreading, farmers also must plant corn and bring in the first cut of hay in the spring. “We understand weather constraints, but to get all our work done in 15 days isn’t feasible either,” she said.

The Secretary of Agriculture does have the ability to adjust the ban in either direction based on weather conditions. One farmer asked that those adjustments be regional, reflecting conditions in different parts of the state.

St. Pierre also questioned the need for a 100-foot buffer on lands sloping more than 10 percent, saying, “I’d like to see the science on that.”

She asked how that buffer will be offset, since it is land on which farmers can’t spread.

There are “a couple of things we put in there that are strong,” Dipietro answered. “The trick is to find the balance. Please give us feedback so we can take that information and make something that works.”

Others expressed concerns about cover cropping. The new regulations require cover crops on all cornfields in areas prone to flooding. Five percent of the farmland in the state is on 100-year-flood areas, on farmer said, arguing the requirement for cover crops reduces the growing season.

Dipietro replied there are ways to get cover crops planted while the corn is still standing,

Another farmer asked what might happen with cover cropping in a wet fall, saying farmers could end up wasting seeds.

Acknowledging the work of Heather Darby and the University of Vermont extension service, Dipietro pointed out there are now more than 20,000 acres of cover crops planted in Vermont each year. “I only can believe it’s going to get better,” she said.

Another farmer asked that the date, Sept. 15, for broadcasting seed for cover crops in the proposed regulations (see accompanying article for details) be shifted later. He broadcast seed for a cover crop on Sept. 28 this year and has a really good crop growing, he said.

“We’ve been trying to cover crop religiously,” said another farmer. He said he was concerned about the costs since federal funding for cover cropping is only available for five years. “With $16 milk, what do you think is going to go first?” he asked.

Farmers made a lot of progress on water quality when milk prices were high, he suggested. “Farmers have a little bit of money to spend, and they wanted to help,” he said, adding, “We can’t spend money we don’t have.”

Other issues

Kent Henderson of the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain also mentioned money, but his focus was on how the state would pay for the staffing needed to provide technical support to farmers and enforce regulations. When he told the Legislature he thought the Agency of Agriculture would need 22 additional staff, “I thought I was going to get thrown out of the room,” Henderson said.

Many of the regulations are focused on how to deal with runoff. He suggested shifting the focus to providing incentives for farmers to follow agronomic practices that prevent runoff, such as reduced buffers.

Traditionally, the Agency of Agriculture has been in charge of all farm operations, regardless of size. The proposed regulations would shift responsibility for the smallest farm operations to the towns. Someone with a single horse or a backyard chicken coop would fall under the jurisdiction of the town, which currently has no authority over farm practices.

A farmer from Fairfield asked what support the Agency will be providing to towns. Dipietro said the Agency of Natural Resources and the Lake Champlain Basin Program are currently working with towns on stormwater and other issues. Information on their agricultural authority could be included with that information, along with model ordinances, she suggested.

Ross spoke of the need to make better use of the agency’s resources. “What’s frustrating is when I see our staff spend a lot of time on a couple of chickens and a horse,” he said.

The problems that arises with such small operations are often “small, nettlesome and politically charged, but have very little to do with water quality,” said Ross.

Darby, a UVM agronomy and soil specialist, asked about regulations for farms such as hers. She has an organic vegetable and livestock farm in Alburgh. There is no guidance on leachate from greenhouses, for example, or on nutrients in potting mixes, said Darby.

She also asked about cover crop requirements for vegetable farmers, since on her farm they just harvested the kale and cabbage, well after the proposed deadline for planting cover crops.

Darby also asked that definition of farm waste in the regulations be changed to separate manure and compost from waste.

Dipietro said the agency is still seeking feedback from fruit and vegetable farmers on the regulations.

Another man in the audience raised the issue of commercial fertilizers, noting that Vermont imports 40,000 tons of fertilizer each year, containing 2,000 tons of phosphorous.

He asked why commercial fertilizers are not regulated in the RAPs.

Dipietro said they are included in farmers nutrient management plans.

The agency has graphics showing a nutrient cycle with nutrients moving from the soil to plants to animals and then back to the soil. “The nutrients I’m talking about are extraneous to the circle,” said the man who raised the issue. “They’re brought in from outside.” He encouraged the agency not to ignore those nutrients.

One farmer asked for a program to publicly recognize farmers who are protecting water quality. “I’ve probably seen the middle finger more every time I spread,” he said. “We have to have something that shows John Doe… we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”

“People have just lost track of what it means to grow food and run a farm,” answered Ross. “This is a huge challenge.”

His agency is considering a recognition program. “It needs to be legitimate, and we need to be able to back it up,” Ross said.

“It shouldn’t be a secret we have really good farmers doing really great work on this issue,” he said.

Quoting former environmental commissioner David Mears, Ross said, “A well-managed farm is actually good for water quality.”

Acknowledging the frustration that comes from having to act on imperfect information that may change in the future, Ross said, “We need as a collective society to make the best decisions we can using the information we’ve got.”

The water quality efforts being asked by farmers are “necessary but not sufficient” to achieve water quality, he said, noting the changes being asked of developers, municipalities and others.