3.23.2018 – Challenges to the Working Landscape and Those Who Work It

Over the last several weeks, I have written about some of the bright spots in agriculture: our rural enterprise development, pollinator protection, and regenerative agriculture bills. These are all heartening but I can also see some dark clouds on the horizon. This may sound overly dramatic, and I hope I’m proven wrong, but I think our working landscape and the people who derive their living from it are in for some difficult times. Why is this important, other than the obvious impact on Vermont’s economy? It is important because of the value of our working landscape to Vermont’s future.

Historically, most residents, especially in rural towns, worked the land. In the 1800s and early 1900s, in a town like Windham, most everyone had animals, a small orchard, and bucked up their own firewood. The town had stores, farms, a post office, sawmills, and, at one time, eight schools. Now we have several small businesses; a few farms; the post office, stores, and sawmills are gone; and we have one school left.

For a century, however, demographics have been changing and in many towns, second homeowners outnumber primary residents and many of the residents moved here to retire. When asked why, the answer frequently has to do with the quality of life. The irony is that in some cases the people who move here want to change things so that Vermont is more like the places from whence they came, which can cause friction. This is not meant to be critical, rather an observation of some of the pressures that have developed.

Who works the working landscape now? Vermont farmers and loggers do some of the hardest work possible. The hours are long and logging, which is the second most dangerous occupation, tends to be seasonal. Loggers have to work when the ground can take it – when it’s frozen or dry – and disallowing work on weekends and/or national holidays can put a significant dent in a logger’s income and may make the difference between success and failure.

The work of foresters and loggers is critical to our landowners’ participation in the Use Value Appraisal, or Current Use, Program because forest management plans need to be fulfilled or the landowner might be bumped from the program. Current Use is an important adjustment to tax bills.

Loggers have also been faced with the closure of several low-grade timber plants in Maine, which has put pressure on Vermont markets. Maine loggers have been shifting their attention to Vermont because of the loss of those markets.
In recent years, Vermont sawmills have closed and other processing plants have been restricted regarding their hours of business and days of operation, causing the loss of valuable income.

Agriculture is facing its own challenges. It has been determined that agriculture has contributed approximately 40% of the phosphorous load to the Lake Champlain Basin. Other sources have contributed to the problem – developed lands including paved roads (14%), unpaved roads (6%), stream instability (22%), forest lands (15%), and wastewater treatment facilities (3%). How is it that agriculture became such a large source of phosphorus? A little history might help explain it.

After World War II, the devastation in Europe and Asia was such that there was great pressure on US farmers to grow as much food as possible – we were the “bread box” of the world. In order to increase production, the federal government gave away phosphorus. Older Vermonters can remember boxcars of phosphorus arriving by rail. It was sometimes spread on the manure in barns so that it was combined evenly before being spread on the fields. Farmers were strongly encouraged to apply large amounts of phosphorus to maximize production.

Now we realize that that was a mistake – it is clear that phosphorus was over-used and today’s farmers are paying the price. Farmers have expressed their willingness to do their part in the clean-up, however, low milk prices and additional costs due to H.64, the Clean Water Act, pose incredible challenges. Low milk prices alone are stressing farms to the point that many are going out of business. When they close, they frequently sell their cows into the beef market, which is having a negative effect on the price of beef and, hence, our local beef industry.

In some cases, folks think that smaller is better but even farmers like Mark and Kate Bowen have had their challenges in Putney. Kate gave compelling testimony regarding the challenges her small farm faces even though it is located in an area of town that is zoned for agriculture, silvaculture, and forestry. To augment their income, they would like to do a small volume of firewood sales that are auxiliary to their logging and farming practices but they have been prohibited from doing so by the town.

In her own words, Kate said “Farming is a life that is thought of as bucolic and simple, but in today’s world it’s increasingly burdensome for most of us with high financial losses, regulation, and a culture who doesn’t accept you. They welcome culturally appropriating your plaid, shiplap, and vernacular architecture for a wedding venue, or wine tasting, but they have no interest in watching you spread manure, or see your barn light come on at 4 am when it’s time to milk.”

There are those who would really like to put the screws to agriculture. For some, there is a sense that farmers have gotten away with grave infractions and that they should be put out of business. Given the history mentioned earlier and the changes farmers are willing to make, I think we should give it some time. The waters of our state have taken decades to foul and will take many decades to clean. There should not be an expectation that this will be achieved overnight.

The larger question is what Vermont would look like without our working landscape. It’s the reason many tourists come to visit and why some people make Vermont their home. The dairy business alone contributes $3 million per day to the State’s economy. By the same token, Lake Champlain contributes to our economy, we are its stewards, and we need to clean it up. In short, a balance needs to be achieved.

This week, we celebrated National Agricultural Day with a resolution indicating the many contributions agriculture makes to our State’s economy. One of my committee members allowed as how he celebrates agriculture three times a day. We need to keep in perspective the value of agriculture to the State of Vermont, the errors that have been made in the past, and how we can repair the damage knowing that it will take time, an effort on everyone’s part, and perseverance.