1.22.2021 – Agriculture’s Role in Water Quality Improvements and Climate Change Mitigation
This week brought an exciting mix of testimony and the inauguration of a new president. Many heaved a collective sigh of relief as the clock struck noon on Wednesday, January 20.
While that was occurring, my committee was taking testimony from the folks at UVM Extension telling us about their programs: Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Forestry; Healthy Families; Natural Environment; and Capable Communities. Their purpose is to cultivate healthy communities and their mission is to “Provide and facilitate research, education and outreach with our partners for the people of Vermont.”
One of our perennial favorite witnesses is Dr. Heather Darby who works primarily at the research facility in Alburgh. One of her areas of interest is to document the state of soil health in Vermont. We know the amount of organic matter in the soil is important for many reasons including its ability to absorb rainwater from the increased number of extreme precipitation events we’ve been having in the northeast for the last 50 years. It is also important because the “sponge” it creates in the soil allows moisture to be released more slowly, mitigating drought conditions. This year, many regions in Vermont were affected by drought with hay crops down by 30%–50%.
Heather wants to document current conditions, essentially establishing a baseline, so we know how we can improve. What is surprising is that the average organic matter in Vermont’s soil is 5.6%. Nationally, that number is 3.2%. A slight increase in organic matter in the top 30 centimeters (approximately 12 inches) of topsoil would allow us to sequester an astonishing number of metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is exciting because it is an indication of how agriculture can be a part of climate change mitigation.
Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm (www.bluesprucefarmvt.com) in Bridport joined us to talk about many of the innovations they have employed to improve soil health, water quality, the environment, and the sustainability of the land. Blue Spruce Farm was the first farm to install a biodigester to create Cow Power. The process turns manure into methane gas that powers generators with enough electricity for more than 300 homes. The process also separates the remaining plant fibers from the liquid. The plant fibers are used for bedding for the cows and the liquid is used to fertilize the fields by manure injection, reducing nutrient runoff. The use of drag lines reduces the carbon footprint because there are fewer truck trips to pick up manure. Blue Spruce is also using a nutrient separator that removes 80% of the phosphorus from the manure, thereby additionally reducing the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Champlain. All this and their milk is being made into Cabot cheese.
We were also delighted to have Rob Wheeler of Wheeler Farm (www.facebook.com/wheelefarm/) in Wilmington join us. He, too, is an Agri-Mark Cooperative farmer. Rob is the third generation to farm on their land, milking Jersey cows and producing maple syrup since 1931. He explained the business structure of Agri-Mark with statistics, including the fact that Agri-Mark employs 900 people.
Marie Audet talked about the recently released Vermont Clean Water Initiative 2020 Performance Report, which is essentially a report card on how we are doing in meeting our goal to clean up Lake Champlain. The report is prepared by the Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation Clean Water Initiative Program
The results are broken down by sector including Agriculture, Developed Land (including stormwater and roads), Natural Resources, and Wastewater Projects. It lays out how much has been spent on these sectors, what the results have been, and the cost-effectiveness of each. What is very clear is that agriculture is responsible for an overwhelming 96% of the phosphorus reduction. This should not be a surprise given that agriculture is the most cost-effective way to attack the phosphorus problem.
The Report states, “Agricultural field and pasture practices (e.g., cover crops, conservation tillage, agricultural riparian buffers) are generally the most cost-effective at reducing total phosphorus loading, costing a median of $86 per kilogram of estimated total phosphorus load reduced annually. These practices also have the lowest variability in cost, ranging only from $3 to $705 per kilogram of estimated total phosphorus load reduced annually. Agricultural field and pasture practices, however, generally have shorter lifespans (i.e., generally one year) compared to structural projects (i.e., generally 10-20 years).”
What this indicates is that field and pasture practices need to be continued in order to realize these benefits. Given that we generally see a yearly increase in cover cropping, for instance, it is not overly optimistic to believe these practices will continue.
By comparison, forested riparian buffer restoration costs a median of $234 per kilogram, road erosion remediation costs a median of $1,380 per kilogram, and stormwater treatment costs a median of $2,280 per kilogram. This makes it abundantly clear that investing in agricultural projects gives the most bang for the buck. The complete report is available electronically by going to http://dec.vermont.gov/water-investment/cwi/reports.
This emphasizes the importance of agriculture’s role in water quality improvement and climate change mitigation. With that in mind, we will continue our work on Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), for both agriculture and forestry, and possibilities for participating in carbon markets.
I was honored this week to be asked by the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference Energy and Environment Committee to serve on an executive committee to develop a State Legislative Climate Alliance working group. This will include all of the states from Maine to New York and Pennsylvania and as far south as Maryland. The goal of the Alliance is “to provide nonpartisan education, best practices, and innovative state policy solutions to help officials address the challenges posed by climate change.” I am excited about participating in this effort and the benefits it might bring to Vermont.