Editor’s Note: This is the last of a two part series that began in the weekend edition.
ST. ALBANS — Pixley Tyler Hill, a founding member of the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), on Friday broke with other leaders of the organization to support a petition that has the potential to change farming practices for some operators within the Missisquoi Bay watershed.
Several local people testified at Friday’s hearing on whether to require farmers within the watershed having fields identified as critical source areas (CSAs) of pollution to adopt field practices intended to minimize that pollution.
Farmers were more likely than not to oppose new state involvement and instead spoke of the efforts they and others in agriculture have already made. Other residents spoke of the need for improved water quality.
The hearing was held by Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross in response to a petition from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) asking Ross to require best management practices (BMPs) on fields identified in a 2010 study as critical source areas (CSAs) of phosphorous in Missisquoi Bay.
Although several agencies such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the UVM Extension Service have targeted assistance to farmers with CSAs no information was presented at the hearing on how many BMPs have been adopted on CSAs or how many farmers who own CSAs have rejected such assistance.
While Hill, co-owner of the Tyler Place Resort in Highgate Springs, said she appreciated the efforts of farmers who have worked with FNLC and the Farmers Watershed Alliance, she expressed frustration with the continued degradation of Lake Champlain.
Phosphorous causes blooms of blue-green algae in the lake. Such blooms can be toxic for animals and potentially hazardous to human health. Missisquoi and St. Albans bays have been especially hard hit, and the leading cause of impairment in both of those watersheds is phosphorous from agricultural fields, particularly corn.
“It’s the field practices involved in the CSAs that make a difference,” said Hill.
Hill pointed out that her family couldn’t simply add new cottages or dining space at the resort. “We’re regulated,” she said.
“We do feel that this is a certain level of unfairness,” she said, with businesses and residents along the lake more tightly regulated than the farms. “It seems that there are more exemptions for the farmers, not having to step up to the same degree we do.”
Farmers, she noted, have a strong lobby.
Eric Wolinsky, the former president of the St. Albans Area Watershed Association, also thanked farmers who have spent time and money to help clean the lake. “The issue to me is not the farmers in the room,” he said. “It’s the farmers not in the room.”
He compared improving water quality to the efforts to stop littering. Some people never littered, he said. Others stopped littering after an educational campaign, but there were some who didn’t stop until anti-littering laws were adopted.
Wolinsky obliquely addressed the concern raised by critics of the proposed regulation – that it would inappropriately require the same practices on all fields. “Exceptions could be made and should be made,” said Wolinsky, who also pointed out the inflexibility of many existing programs to assist farmers in adopting BMPs. Federal programs often require engineering reports, for example. Such programs are taking away an advantage farmers have – their own ingenuity, suggested Wolinsky.
“If you deny the petition, would you answer the question of what it would take to implement these BMPs?” Wolinsky asked Ross. He asked how many more millions need to be spent on studies – the CSA study cost approximately $800,000 between data gathering and the study itself. “How much more certain do you need to be?” asked Wolinsky.
Ross asked how long after cleanup efforts began would it be before the results would be evident. “That’s the $64,000 question,” Wolinsky replied. He added he believes the results may show more quickly than scientists estimate because in the years when the amount of runoff into the lake is reduced the water quality is “noticeably better.”
Farmers took the position that improvements are already underway and that the cost of implementing BMPs would be prohibitive for small farmers.
Daniel Fortin, of Highgate, said he has begun using cover crops and reduced tillage on his farm. What works on one farm may not work on another, he suggested. “Soils are all different,” said Fortin. “Farm histories are different.”
Water quality is essential to his farm, said Swanton farmer Jack Parent, vice president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery.
Some best practices, such as cover cropping, are dependent on the weather, he pointed out. Parent suggested farm regulations could take weather into account, particularly the manure-spreading ban.
Another Swanton farmer, Dick Longway, who has a long history of being involved in water quality efforts, said he would like to see a phosphorous credit, similar to a carbon credit, in which farmers could get credit for efforts to reduce phosphorous.
He also noted that wildlife also impacts water quality, pointing to a flock of geese that destroyed vegetation on his land, creating an erosion problem.
Larry Gervais, whose family farm is in Bakersfield, said his family has purchased, with government assistance, a manure injector for their farm, as have the St. Pierres. Manure injection is possible on some fields, but not all, he said.
Other practices such as buffers “may work in some instances but not in others,” said Gervais.
His family has also received federal assistance to plant trees to reduce erosion along streams and help from the state with a new $85,000 leachate system to reduce nutrient-rich runoff from feed stores. The cost of such practices will put small farms out of business “if they don’t get plenty of help,” said Gervais.
Some practices, he said, may reduce yields, causing farmers to purchase grains elsewhere thus importing phosphorous into the watershed.
It should be noted that the petition does not ask for BMPs on all fields, only those which have been identified as vulnerable to erosion because of soil type, slope, proximity to a stream or river, and land use. There is nothing to stop the state from requiring on the ground verification that the fields identified as CSAs in the study actually are CSAs.
Working with farmers
Jeff Sanders of the UVM Extension Service said it is relationships with farmers that lead to improved practices.
Regulation will hinder those relationships, he said.
Although the extension service has done more than 100 projects on 100 farms, Sanders could not answer the question of how many of those projects have been on CSAs. Others at the extension service should have that information, he told Ross, who asked that it be submitted in writing.
Sanders also touched on the need for third party verification of practices to improve water quality. Such verification could be done by the extension service or groups like FNLC, he said, adding, “The touchy thing is not identifying the people who haven’t done the work.”
Asked by Ross what it would take to reach farmers in a more expeditious way, Sanders replied, “It’s going to take people and it’s going to take money.”
FNLC chair Kurt Henderson, a retired large animal veterinarian, called the petition an “exciting opportunity.” However, he quickly added that the best use of the CSA information is voluntary.
“It’s a guideline. It points an arrow to where we’re supposed to be working,” he said. “We believe that by going ahead with this petition you’re adding a layer of distrust.”
NRCS had more than 330 applications for assistance with adopting BMPs this past year, according to Henderson. “The big bottleneck in getting work done on the farms right now is financial,” he said.