ADDISON COUNTY — In the wake of blue-green algae outbreaks along Lake Champlain and public beaches closing due to high E. coli levels, the health of Vermont’s freshwater resources was a hot-button issue for many Vermonters this summer.
Scientists have identified cow manure and agricultural fertilizer runoff as leading contributors of high E. coli and phosphorus in Addison County waterways. But big-time dairy farmers like Starksboro’s Eric Clifford and Bridport’s Marie Audet are taking conscientious measures to control their farms’ nutrient runoff.
For Clifford, these measures are a no-brainer. An eighth-generation Vermont farmer on his family’s 500-acre spread, he was one of the county’s first farmers to enter the USDA Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, known as CREP.
The aim of the program is to reduce waste runoff and sedimentation into local waterways by establishing a 25-50-foot buffer between waterways and pasture or crop land. This barrier filters out nutrients and preserves stream banks. Essentially, the feds and the state lease land from farmers that they’d otherwise use for crops and pastures.
Since 2002, FSA data show that the program has preserved around 2,580 acres of buffer zone along Vermont waterways and has paid out a total of $10,077,361 in federal funds and $2,489,808 in state money — via the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. These funds include lease payments, signing incentives, monitoring fees and project costs for undertakings like building fences to contain livestock and creating water systems to keep animals hydrated.
According to Craig Miner, director of the Addison County FSA office, the program currently has enrolled 1,215 acres of buffer zone in Addison County alone, accounting for almost half of the total CREP acreage in the state.
“We have a lot of streams and a lot of agricultural acreage in Addison County,” Miner said. “The farmers here, through the FSA, got an early start on this program … There are a lot of farmers that are good stewards to the land, as long as they have some help paying for costs.”
Clifford was one of those farmers, signing onto the program in 2000 — the program’s first year in Vermont.
“As far as water quality goes, it’s just plain a good idea,” said Clifford. “Keeping cows out of the stream and cutting back on stream bank erosion is front and center now (for farmers). From an environmental stewardship angle and being a good farmer, it seemed like a good thing to do.”
In implementing this program, the FSA recognized that farmers’ livelihoods depend on the land they work and that giving up portions of their land would inhibit their ability to make as big a return on their investment. The program, therefore, compensates farmers for the income they lose for putting their land into conservation.
In Clifford’s case, most of the land he leases is pasture, and he receives $388 a year for the 8.8 acres he rents out. His rate of $44 an acre is lower than new rates, said Miner, “because the FSA found farmers weren’t getting enough money to make it worthwhile.” To boot, Clifford also received a signing bonus of $1,320 from the FSA and $2,772 from the state. The FSA also gave him a full reimbursement for his new fence.
For cropland, the subsidies are a bit different: The greater the fertility, the better the compensation.
“If you have very fertile cropland, the state incentive rate can be quite lucrative,” said Miner.
On some land, Miner said, the state-signing bonus could be as high as $1,900 per acre, compared to the $315 per acre bonus Clifford received for his 15-year contract. Annual payments for fertile cropland often range between $100-$200 per acre, more than twice what Clifford gets for his pasture.
Standing by the edge of his fenced-off buffer zone, now covered in trees and wildflowers, Clifford lists the advantages of the program. But he also acknowledges that some farmers have gripes about the program because they don’t want to enter into a long-term contract with the federal government, and they think the process is a bit burdensome.
“Most of the people I know in the program feel that (leasing off the buffer land) was the right thing to do and continues to be the right thing to do,” said Clifford. “From my point of view, it’s a pretty painless process.”
KEEP IT ON THE LAND
Marie Audet and her family run Blue Spruce Farm, a 3,000-acre farm in Bridport with around 3,000 bovine — 1,500 cows and 1,500 youngsters.
About seven years ago, Audet learned of a new technology to stretch manure supplies and better quarantine its application. Cornwall’s Matt Severy of Matthew’s Trucking LLC introduced her to an industrial aerator. The device pushes holes in the topsoil, so that when manure is spread on farmland it can flow deep into the soil.
Rather than spraying nutrients on top of the land, Blue Spruce was able to put the nutrients right into the ground, making more effective use of the fertilizer.
“We produce up to 160 tons of manure a day,” said Audet. “That amount covers only half of the farm’s 3,000 acres each year.”
The fertilizer application process begins in the barn, using a device to squeegee manure and wastewater into pipes that lead to a digester. The farm has two digesters, which each hold 1.5 million gallons of manure. When the manure reaches the concrete gut of a digester, it is heated up to produce methane gas. The gas fuels a generator that creates electricity, which is sold to Green Mountain Power. The byproduct of this process is then separated into a liquid fertilizer and a solid, peat moss-like substance used for livestock bedding.
The liquid manure is then collected in a pond and pumped through a several-mile-long hose that’s attached to Audet’s tractor-pulled aerator. The aerator has tiller-like wheels that punch holes in the ground. The liquid manure is then sprayed a foot off the ground and goes right into the aerated holes.
For the Audets, this new process is a win-win. Not only does it keep more E. coli and phosphorus out of local waterways, but it also provides greater fertility to their land with less fertilizer.
“We’re not perfect today, but we’re doing more (to be sustainable) every day,” Audet said. “We are capturing the nutrients. We understand that we can’t just let them go at will.”