4.20.2018 – Water Clean-up and the Right to Know
This week, a very interesting topic has gained attention pitting potential expedited progress against availability of information. I favor, with rare exception, open government. All of the proceedings in our committee are recorded and all of the documents viewed by our committee are available on our website. To look at the website for any committee, go to www.legislature.vermont.gov.
The issue at hand concerns the Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) for our Medium Farm Operations and Small Farm Operations. The NMPs are tailored for each farm and are very specific regarding individual fields and production areas. Data include the amount of nutrients, the percentage of organic matter in the soil verified by soil tests, the required practices for those fields, and much more, all of which gives the farmer a “prescription” for what they can apply to their land.
In 2002 we created a permitting process for our Large Farm Operations (LFOs). As part of the permitting process, the LFOs submitted their NMPs to the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM). These documents are paper copies in loose leaf binders that are, in some cases, eight inches thick. To be very clear, no state money is spent on the NMPs. They are paid for either by the farmer themselves or with funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is an agency in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Its mission is “to improve, protect, and conserve natural resources on private lands through a cooperative partnership with state and local agencies.” On a federal level, the NMPs are held confidentially.
Several years later, we created a permitting process for our Medium Farm Operations. NMPs are required for our MFOs but are not submitted to the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets – they are held on the farm. As with the LFO NMPs, the MFO NMPs are paid for by the farmer or through NRCS funding. SFOs will be certified in the near future and all farms – small, medium, and large – are required to meet the standards of the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs). These are the rules adopted just over a year ago by the AAFM that include best management practices including regenerative soil health principles.
All of this is part of the effort to clean up the waters of the state. It has been estimated that agriculture is responsible for 40% of the problem in the Lake Champlain watershed. Developed land actually contributes twice as much nutrient loading per acre as agricultural land, but because it is cheaper and more cost-effective to clean up agricultural land, agriculture’s ultimate contribution will amount to 60% of the clean-up.
On top of that, all of the benefits that result from employing soil health principles in terms of sequestering carbon will help reduce Vermont’s carbon footprint at the same time we are cleaning up our waters. Using the NRCS COMET planner tool it is estimated that if we can cover crop 75,000 acres and put 42,000 acres into filter strips/buffers, we will draw down 80,750 tonnes (metric tons) of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to removing 41,200 cars from the road.
While we have a long road ahead of us and big investments to make in terms of funding, there is light at the end of the tunnel and agriculture can play a huge role in cleaning up the waters of our state. Our farmers understand that this needs to be done and are willing to put their shoulders to the wheel – all this when milk prices are low and they are struggling to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, there has grown a hostile, almost toxic, atmosphere and a general lack of trust amongst all parties. This has been exacerbated by strangers trespassing and filming on private property at Lake Carmi and articles in the press that, while not untrue, are at least misleading.
Last week, I wrote about the situation at Lake Carmi and the work of Dr. Heather Darby, who determined that the farmers there are doing their parts and that 87% of the fields in the Lake Carmi watershed were at or below optimal phosphorus levels. The 13% that are above optimal phosphorous levels have plans associated with them to bring those numbers down. The problem at Lake Carmi is probably being caused by a number of factors including legacy phosphorus, increased development including the road and more heavily used camps, streambank erosion, and a perfect storm of weather conditions. Some of the farmers actually own camps on the lake and have a strong vested interest in cleaning it up. Heather was able to do this work because she has the trust of the farmers.
The demand on the parts of some of the advocates that the NMPs for the MFOs and SFOs be submitted to the AAFM and therefore be made subject to the Public Records Act is causing great concern for the farmers. Included in the NMPs is proprietary information that they do not feel should be revealed. What is interesting to me is that of greatest concern is that the data on leased fields might cause another farmer to compete for that land, not the actual scientific data points.
In testimony, a representative from the Conservation Law Foundation said that they wanted the information so that they could monitor what was being done and verify if goals were being met in a timely way. This is the job of the AAFM, which has just gotten its feet under it in terms of rule promulgation and staffing.
One proposal being put on the table would allow the AAFM to collect NMP data electronically and hold it confidentially for a period of three years at which point that exemption from the Public Records Act would “sunset.” The AAFM would release information in aggregate, similar to what Dr. Darby did with Lake Carmi. Without this protection for the farmers, I fear the AAFM will be met with resistance, and more time will be spent in court trying to get the NMPs than doing what they should be doing, which is reviewing the NMPs and making sure the farmers are in compliance.
We can debate whether the NMPs should be public until the cows come home, but I believe we all have the same goal – to clean up the waters of the state. The reality is, unfortunately, riddled with mistrust and the question is how long do we want the clean-up to take? My hope is that we will give all parties a little time to consciously build trust and get the information to the people who need it so that we can make progress in the most expeditious way possible.
It was gratifying to watch a recent Nova program on Vermont Public Television called Decoding the Weather Machine. The topic was climate change and the effect it is having on our planet. Featured as part of the solution, were many of the regenerative practices, such as cover cropping, no- or low-tillage, and manure injection that we included in H.903, on which the Senate is currently working. The show made the point that employing these practices lead to better soil health, good yields, improved water quality, and carbon sequestration.