3.8.2019 – Agriculture, Soil Health, Wetland Permits, and Water Clean-up

When we left Montpelier last week, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee had spent a significant amount of time trying to understand wetlands permitting in conjunction with agriculture. It is complicated with different layers of rules and regulations on both the federal and state levels. As we dug into the details, we’ve developed a level of concern because there is a sense that what the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is doing, will, in fact, make the clean up of Lake Champlain considerably more costly and take a lot more time.

For many decades, farmers have been following advice given to them by their forbears or experts that was sometimes proven to be wrong. After World War II, when the United States was looked to as the breadbasket of the world due to the devastation in Europe and Asia, phosphorus was viewed as something that should be widely used. Old-timers can remember when boxcars of phosphorous were brought to Vermont and, unfortunately, there may have been a prevailing belief that if a little was good, then more would be better.

We are now at a point when it’s time to pay the piper. It’s estimated that agriculture is responsible for 41% of the phosphorous load in Lake Champlain. Streambank erosion is responsible for 21%, developed land – 18%, forest land – 16%, and waste water treatment facilities – 4%. Because remediating developed land is twice as expensive per acre as remediating agricultural land, we will get more bang for our buck cleaning up agricultural land. This will be achieved by following the Required Agricultural Practices (RAP), adopted two and a half years ago; encouraging adherence to good soil health principles and the use of practices such as cover cropping, low- and no-tillage, manure injection, and aeration; and employing Best Management Practices such as cleaning up heavy use barnyard areas. All of these are meant to reduce nutrient run-off and clean up the waters of the State. An added bonus is that increasing organic matter in the soil also sequesters carbon.

Historically, farmers were relatively free to make improvements but in recent years the DEC has been requiring a wetland permit if there is a change of use from food or crop to something else, but what we have found is that their version of “something else” is, actually, still related to agriculture. For instance, a real example is a farmer wanted to convert a cropped field to rotational grazing, which is an improvement in terms of use. In order to move his cows from one area of the field to another, he wanted to create a laneway so they wouldn’t punch holes in the sod, which would have a negative impact on water quality. He was told that the laneway constituted a change in use because that laneway was no longer growing food or crops and he would have to pay thousands of dollars for a wetland permit. Keep in mind that the farmer was within his rights to continue as before allowing his cows to slog through the field, which would have created a mud hole. This is an example of a Best Management Practice (BMP) that would improve water quality that was held up for a year and a half.

Another example, posed hypothetically to a DEC representative in testimony, was a situation where a farmer wanted to erect a structure to provide shelter for his/her animals. The opinion offered was that the structure would represent a change of use because the area taken up by the structure was not growing food or crop. The fact that it was providing shelter for animals that provide food did not seem to matter.

This has reminded me of our struggle with the Department of Taxes, which years ago applied manufacturing standards to agriculture for the purpose of determining what should have sales tax applied to it. As a result, anything directly involved in milk production, such as milking equipment, barn fans, etc., in the case of a dairy farm, was tax exempt. Other things like fencing and fence posts were not. The problem was a lack of understanding of what is involved in farming.

Agriculture is important to Vermont’s economy – dairy alone represents more than a billion dollars a year. Dairy farmers, however, have been struggling with sustained low milk prices. On the other hand, our local farm and food sectors are doing very well. We recently celebrated the Farm to Plate Initiative’s success story with 6,559 net new jobs and 742 net new farms and food-related businesses created in seven years. The initial goal of doubling the consumption of Vermont-produced products in ten years from 5% to 10%, was outstripped when it was revealed that in seven years, consumption of Vermont products grew to 12.9%.

Additionally, farming and forestry – our working landscape – have other attributes regarding our economy. I think it’s safe to say that tourists don’t come to Vermont to look at housing developments. They come to look at our beautiful open lands (cleared and maintained mostly by farmers), ski on our mountains amongst our woodlands, and recreate and fish in our lovely lakes, rivers, and streams.

We can all agree that we want to clean up Lake Champlain as quickly as possible. Agriculture is a major part of the solution. Rainfall in Vermont has increased an average of seven inches in the last 30 years. Increased organic matter in the soil improves its ability to soak up water and retain it during times of drought. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, increasing one percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil would hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre. On average, for every acre of impervious farmstead, a farmer owns 200 acres of farm land that, if developed, would have a very negative impact on wetlands. Additionally, the present clean-up plan allows towns like Middlebury and Burlington to accommodate more development.

We need to move forward to find a solution that allows farmers to implement, in a timely way, the practices they need to improve soil health at the lowest cost possible. Just as we value agricultural land for the ecosystems services it can provide, we value wetlands for the same reason. If wetlands delineation needs to be done, we should find funds to cover it and make sure it happens quickly. Slowing the clean-up process runs counter to our common goal of restoring Lake Champlain to its former pristine self.