FRANKLIN – Carved out of a stream deep into one of the Bouchard Family Dairy’s field, the dairy’s two-tier ditch system is virtually invisible from the road, something the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC) lamented when they presented the ditch during Thursday’s annual Summer Farm Meeting.
“We’ll definitely be advocating for it more,” said FNLC’s David Cavagnaro when confronted with that fact by Rep. Marianna Gamache (R – Swanton) during a visit to the Bouchard’s fields.
The two-tier ditch system, where a bench — basically a vertical ditch with straight rather than sloped sides — is carved into the banks of a stream, creating an artificial flood plane, was introduced by FNLC as another way farmers could help mitigate agriculture’s impact on its resident watershed, as the system allows for more erosion and runoff protection.
As a part of the Summer Farm Meeting, FNLC led a delegation of officials from the Agency of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Agency of Natural Resources, as well as Gamache, to the Bouchard farm to observe the ditch.
Benches, carved above the ditch but below the abutting fields, serve as a flood plane for excess water during times of heavy rainfall or flooding, directing water away from the adjacent farm fields.
Phil Bouchard, the owner of the Bouchard Family Dairy, said that during times of flooding, he could lose five or six acres of farmable land near where the two-tier ditch was ultimately installed.
According to Brian Jerose of Agrilab, who presented on the two-tier ditch earlier in the day, the Bouchards reported that they saw significantly less flooding during this year’s heavy rains.
Water moves more slowly through the two-tier ditch, Jerose said, meaning there’s more time for the sediment in the water to settle before ultimately leaving the Bouchard property.
Wetland plants are planned for the benches, which will also help pull phosphorous from the water as it drains off of the Bouchards’ fields.
The practice is new to Vermont, with the Bouchards’ ditch being the first for the state, noted FNLC’s longtime chair, Dr. Kent Henderson. He added that the structure was relatively more common among farms in the Midwest.
Construction of the two-tier ditch was funded by a grant procured by FNLC. Ultimately, Jerose estimated the project’s cost to be somewhere around $34,000, a steep price tag that ultimately limited the ditch’s construction to only a section of the Bouchard stream.
Jerose suggested, however, that, now that there was a successful model in Vermont to work with, future two-tier ditch construction would likely be cheaper.
Future work is also expected for the Bouchard ditch, with willow trees planned to line the ditch along those dug-in banks to further remove water and sift phosphorous while also providing shade for the stream.
“Cooling the water is another piece of the puzzle,” Jerose said, explaining that algae blooms are more likely when water is exposed and more easily heated by sunlight.
The pilot two-tier ditch offers FNLC a chance to test how effective the two-tier ditch could be in Vermont. FNLC will be monitoring soil around the ditch for the next several years, something that Cavagnaro hopes could help convince other farmers to adopt the practice.
“It’s the proof that it’s effective,” Cavagnaro said. “Just to get a cut or an estimate of the raw amount of phosphorous you’re saving is a powerful number.”
Henderson and Jerose both explained that the ditch project was another example of farmers being proactive about addressing their impact on local waterways, with Henderson noting that the Bouchards volunteered to have the two-tier built on their land.
But while farmers take steps in reshaping their land and their practices to address water runoff, Jerose warned that it would still be a while before water quality ultimately improves in the Lake Champlain watershed, as, even if there was a total stemming of runoff pollution, there were still legacy deposits of phosphorous.
“It’s going to take years and years,” Jerose said.
For the full story pick up a copy of Friday’s Messenger or subscribe to our digital edition.