FRANKLIN — The day started with donuts and coffee, and from there on out it was all crops, cows, farmers and water.

The 2014 Summer Farm and Lake Tour took place Thursday with 40 or so participants seeing some of Franklin County’s local farm best management practices.

From dragline manure spreading to methane digesters, no-till cropping, buffer zones and grass waterways, those on the tour were exposed to methods area farmers are using to reduce soil erosion, eliminate sediment runoff, keep the watershed clean, and increase energy efficiency.

The effort put into implementing these practices, along with a visit to a Lake Carmi shore landowner awarded “Lake Wise” status by the state’s Agency of Natural Resources for good practices, and not to mention the crowd, which signed up for the 5-hour long tour, illustrated the growing number of Vermonters dedicated to watershed conservation.

Participant Holly Kreiner, the University of Vermont Watershed Alliance program assistant and watershed educator, observed yesterday, “I think that Vermonters are starting to realize how important this issue is.”

Variety of visitors

The free event, one of two held yearly by the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC) and the University of Vermont Extension, was held with a couple of other partnering organizations: the Franklin Watershed Committee and the Missisquoi River Basin Association.

Representatives these groups, along with state workers, UVM staff, State Rep. Michel Consejo (D-Franklin 4), staff members from both Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ offices, and St. Albans Town’s planner Maren Hill, were along for the ride on the tour’s school bus.

Denise Smith, FNLC’s executive director, said there usually are many farmers on the tour, but with sunny skies and cooler temperatures, they couldn’t be pried away from a perfect haying day.

Regardless, Smith said she was pleased with the variety of the people on the tour and the apparent interest in the issue.

“They’re hearing first hand from farmers,” she said. “That’s really what it’s about.”

Manure spreading

The tour began at the Gervais Farm in Enosburg, where Larry Gervais and his brother, Clement, spoke of the advantages of using a dragline manure spreader.

The method, done by hooking a large, long hose from a digested manure lagoon to a tractor and injecting the watery, nitrogen-rich manure directly into the soil, is more efficient, less smelly, and less likely to create runoff.

“You don’t even know the manure has been applied,” said Larry. “It’s injected right into the ground.”

He added that using a hose, as opposed to trucking manure, saves money on fuel and reduces soil compaction due to fewer wheels on the fields.

“It seems to me, the soil till is healthier,” said Larry. “I think we’re just on the tip of seeing the benefits.”

With the help of a “hose humper” tractor that helps maneuver the dragline, the manure can be spread across all kinds of fields. Only one other farm in the state uses this method now, though others are picking up the practice.

“It’s a huge trial and error,” said Larry. The Gervais brothers are in their second year of using a dragline spreader. “It’s becoming easier for us,” he added.

 More methods

In between farms, various best farm management practices to protect local waterways were observed along the roadside. These included trees and shrubs planted as buffer zones around farmland streams and along the Missisquoi River; compost filter socks acting as sustainable runoff prevention and sediment catches on field edges; and strip cropped fields, where corn and hay plots alternate across fields to reduce soil erosion, runoff, and other water pollution issues.

In addition, the tour stopped by the Riverview Farm in Franklin, owned by Michael and Denna Benjamin, to see its methane digester. The $1.5 million machine not only creates clean bedding for the farm’s 450 dairy cows and nitrogen-rich digested manure to spread, but is also capable of producing 189 kilowatts of electricity (or the amount needed to power 150 homes). The payback period for a methane digester is five to seven years – only a portion of its 20- to 30-year lifetime.

Bridgeman View

After a lunch sponsored by Champlain Valley Equipment and provided by The Abbey Restaurant, participants looked at one last farm in Franklin.

Walking among Tim Magnant’s cornrows and hayfields, everyone observed his no-till, covered crops, his grass waterway, or swale, and his buffer zones, all used as methods reduce gully erosion and runoff into streams.

Magnant also injected all of his manure this year, as opposed to spreading it.

“I got some accolades from people in the village,” he said in reference to the less-smelly field fertilization.

Magnant has worked quite a bit with Heather Darby, an agronomic and soils specialist from the UVM Extension. By testing out different management practices with UVM equipment and experimental cropping with Darby, Magnant has been able to determine what is best for his farm while also being mindful of the watershed.

Magnant’s covered corn crop in no-till soil, for example, has been doing better than all of his other crops.

“There’s no corn anywhere on the farm that will compete with this,” he said.

Magnant is also participating in the UVM nutrient management program, its “goCrop” web application, among other services. He has also worked with the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance on various water conservation projects on the farm.

Continuing progress

According to Darby, farmers like Magnant, the Gervaises, the Benjamins, and the owners of the other fields the tour saw, are becoming the norm in Vermont.

“The majority of farmers are implementing some of these practices,” she said. As many as 95 percent of the farmers participating in UVM Extension’s programs are taking watershed conservation and best management practices on, and there may be more outside those programs, Darby said.

Public pressure, more resources, and technical advice have allowed this to happen, she added.

“The last 10 years, we’ve seen huge shifts,” Darby said. “People are really engaged.”