ADDISON COUNTY — As the state Agency of Agriculture debates whether to implement new regulations on farmers in the Missisquoi Bay watershed in an effort to cut down on phosphorus pollution, farmers in Addison County say more regulation is not the answer.
“The regulations that we have, including the Accepted Agricultural Practices, are adequate,” said Bill Moore, legislative director for the Vermont Farm Bureau.
In Franklin County, the Conservation Law Foundation has filed a petition with the Agency of Agriculture that requests the agency mandate new best management practices on all farms in the watershed that are deemed as major sources of pollution.
Best management practices are improvements to a farm, mandated on a case-by-case basis to decrease pollution into waterways. Most of the funding for these improvements, which can include manure storage and runoff collection systems, comes from state and federal sources. According to the Agency of Agriculture, farmers must shoulder at least 15 percent of the cost.
The Farm Bureau opposes the CLF petition. Moore said instead of implementing new rules, state officials need to enforce the laws already on the books.
“The answer is not more regulation,” Moore said. “The Accepted Agricultural Practices are more than adequate, but there’s no implementation.”
The Accepted Agricultural Practices, known as AAPs, were first adopted by the state in 1995. They are a series of restrictions that aim to cut down on the amount of phosphorus and other pollutants that enter Lake Champlain as runoff from farms. According to the AAPs, half of the phosphorous in the lake comes from agricultural sources.
Phosphorus, which is found in manure, causes algae and bacteria to grow at a rate that is faster than ecosystems can handle. These “algae blooms” diminish water quality and decrease the amount of oxygen in waterways for fish and other species. Drinking water contaminated by algae blooms can be harmful to human health and fatal to smaller animals.
The AAPs apply to farms of any size.
“Pretty much anyone who owns a critter, the AAPs apply to them by law,” Moore said. “My wife and I own three mules, and the AAPs apply to us.”
Moore said during the recession that began in 2008, the state cut staffing at the Agency of Agriculture. He believes the state should restore staffing to pre-2008 levels by hiring 16 to 20 new field agents who can help enforce the AAPs.
Moore said that many farmers, especially on small farms, simply do not know the ins and outs of the AAPs. Thus, the Agency of Agriculture needs to not just enforce the statutes, but educate farmers.
“It’s going to be a long education and implementation process,” Moore said. “That addresses the small farms that are out there, know nothing about what the AAP does.”
Moore said he believes the legislature has not increased staffing at the Agency of Agriculture because it does not want to raise taxes to fund it.
“No one wants to talk about taxes,” Moore said. “Until the economy grows, it’s not a politically viable option.”
Moore said any changes to regulation should come from the Legislature, and not from an outside group.
“We should oppose this type of petition in any watershed, because it’s bad government,” Moore said. “Government by lawsuit is always bad government.”
FARMERS WEIGH IN
Jon Rooney of Monument Farms in Weybridge said he agrees with Moore that existing statutes are adequate to address phosphorous runoff, but need to be more strictly enforced.
“I feel personally that there are plenty of adequate and correctly aimed regulations on the books,” Rooney said. “I think there needs to be perhaps more widespread enforcement of said rules.”
Rooney said that farms across the state could benefit from more Agency of Agriculture field agents, which he believes would help prevent AAP violations in the first place.
“There definitely aren’t enough staffers to be proactive by any means,” Rooney said. “That’s why they’ve been forced to be complaint-driven, as opposed to proactive.”
Rooney said he believes that if the Conservation Law Foundation petition in Franklin County is successful, the organization will look to file a similar petition in Addison County, where dairy farms are a large part of local agriculture.
“I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to think they’d do the same here,” Rooney said.
Bob Foster of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury said he does not think the CLF petition would be effective in curbing phosphorous pollution getting into the lake.
“I don’t see how this is going to be constructive towards making our water supply cleaner,” he said.
He added that the Agriculture and Natural Resources agencies are already working with farmers to find solutions.
“I think the Agency of Ag has been moving forward with the limited resources it has to work with famers the best they can,” Foster said.
Rooney said that while well-intentioned, additional regulations proposed by individuals unfamiliar with the daily realities of farming may do more harm than good.
“I don’t know how much more stringent controls by non-farmers, people that don’t necessarily know agriculture, we would want to see,” Rooney said.
Rooney said increased regulation of runoff from agriculture sources has become a hot topic in recent years.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the amount of scrutiny, both on the part of the EPA and the (USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service),” Rooney said.
This spring, the Environmental Projection Agency required the Shumlin Administration to submit a plan for how the state will decrease the level of phosphorous in Lake Champlain, which has exceeded EPA standards by one third.
The governor’s plan, which he submitted to the EPA in May, includes steps already codified in the Accepted Agricultural Practices, such as vegetative buffers between crops, keeping livestock out of streams, and secure storage of manure.