Farmers debate their role in Lake Champlain cleanup

BRIDPORT — A bill before the Legislature that aims to clean up Lake Champlain was the hot topic of a Monday legislative luncheon that focused on agricultural issues.

Two members of the House of Representatives, Democrat David Sharpe of Bristol and Republican Harvey Smith of New Haven, were on hand at the Bridport Community Hall to hear residents’ concerns about the bill and other farming topics.

The bill, H.35, would limit municipal, commercial and agricultural sources of pollution into the Lake Champlain watershed.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive piece of legislation that’s going to affect everyone in the state of Vermont,” Smith said.

The bill has wound its way through four House committees, and as of Tuesday resided with the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. Smith, a farmer who also sits on the House Agriculture Committee, said he expected the full House to consider the bill soon.

A key piece of the legislation would allow the Agency of Agriculture to hire new field staff to educate farmers on the Accepted Agriculture Practices, a set of rules adopted by the Legislature in the 1990s to limit pollution by farmers. The agency also plans to update the AAPs in the coming 18 months.

“Right now we have a bare minimum of what every farmer in the state has to follow,” Smith explained. “The goal is to end up with a farm that doesn’t have a direct discharge coming off the barnyard.”

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross told the Independent in January that the agency at present does not have enough staff to talk with every farmer in the state, especially small farm operations. The legislation would require these farms — defined, for example, as dairies with fewer than 200 mature cows — to acquire a permit from the state to operate. Previously, only medium and large farms had to get a permit.

The bill would also increase the annual permitting fee for farmers, and would set that scale as follows: $500 maximum for a small farm, $1,500 maximum for a medium farm and $2,500 maximum for a large farm. It also includes a new fee on fertilizer purchases and also a 2 percent increase in the property transfer tax, which Smith said will raise between $5 million and $6 million.

Several farmers asked Smith if he supported the bill, especially since it increases fees on farmers.

The long-time state representative said he wants to support the state’s efforts to improve water quality, but admitted that he has struggled with the parts of the bill that would place a heavier burden on farmers.

“You’re right, this is a lot of money,” Smith said. “The farming community has stepped up to the plate to say ‘We’re willing to help clean this up; we’re willing to pay a certification fee.’”

Smith said the best way for farmers to be stewards of the land and water they use is to be a part of the Legislature’s solution to the lake pollution problem.

Addison farmer Mark Boivin asked if the new certification fee was another tax that Montpelier aims to levy on farmers. Smith said it was a fee and not a tax — an exercise in semantics that drew laughter from the crowd — but said the funding would go directly to programs administered by the Agency of Agriculture.

“Those fees came from the agricultural community, and we decided this was the most equitable way to do it,” Smith explained.

But while farmers back the agency’s push for more field staff, critics worry that the state will still be unable to regulate all its farmers. James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International believes this is especially true now that the state is making small farms get permits.

“There is much concern that the agency cannot handle the 166 farms currently under its direct oversight, so even with seven additional staff, how is it going to handle 7,000?” Ehlers asked in a recent statement.

Ehlers implored the agency to explore more public-private partnerships to achieve its ends.

The money raised through the new funding mechanisms in H.35 represent just a fraction of what the state plans to spend cleaning up Lake Champlain. On a visit to Vermont last August, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $45 million of funding through the USDA for Lake Champlain cleanup. In January, Sen. Patrick Leahy was instrumental in securing an additional $16 million through the USDA for that purpose.

EVERYONE PITCHES IN

Others at Monday’s ag luncheon pointed out that the state or federal governments aren’t the only actors that can play a role in lake cleanup. Pam Stefanek of the Otter Creek Natural Resources Conservation District saidthe group in recent years has helped farmers install 1,000 acres of vegetative buffers along waterways, which help filter pollutants from runoff before they enter the watershed.

“Landowners are stepping up and taking these opportunities for conservation,” Stefanek said.

Dairy farmer Marie Audet of Bridport told those at Monday’s luncheon that the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, a farmer advocacy group she belongs to, aims to work closely with the government to implement responsible agricultural practices statewide.

She said that while the general public may not know, farming practices have change significantly over the past several decades.

“The whole culture has changed, and we don’t farm the way we used to,” Audet said. “We do something new when we know we can do better. We till differently; we don’t turn over the soil. We have greener cornfields because of cover crops.”

Audet said the CVFC and farmers across the state should work with legislators to mitigate agricultural sources of pollution.

“We know how to farm, we just need to implement these practices,” she said. “We need to educate everyone so we’re all on the same page.”

Paul Boivin, also of Addison, said farmers can do much to curb pollution, but the state must also crack down on municipal and commercial sources of runoff. He said he has for years driven past an embankment on a developed plot in Charlotte that is eroding into the lake, but the owner seems to have never addressed it.

“It dismays me to no end,” he said. “It’s everybody’s problem, we’re told, but I don’t know where everybody is, because I haven’t seen them yet.”

Boivin added that he feels farmers are unfairly singled out as polluters. The EPA estimates that about 40 percent of phosphorous dumped into Lake Champlain comes from agricultural sources.

“We are laid to blame for all the evils that are happening as far as water quality is concerned,” Boivin said. “It’s everybody’s problem, and it should be everybody’s tax money spent doing this.”

ENFORCEMENT

In addition to giving the Agency of Agriculture more resources to educate farmers about best practices and encourage more environmentally friendly techniques, H.35 also empowers the state to punish farmers who refuse to comply with the rules.

In a statement released Monday, Ross outlined what these enforcement tools would look like.

“The agency (would) have increased authority to issue emergency orders, mandatory corrective actions, and removal of livestock in cases of immediate need, so significant water quality violations can be dealt with more swiftly and efficiently,” Ross said of H.35.

The bill also would allow the Department of Taxes to disenroll noncompliant farmers from the Current Use program, through which property taxes on land used for farming are greatly discounted.

Smith said while punishment is a last resort for the state, and only a small percentage of farmers break the law, the enforcement provisions in this bill will help the state meet its water quality goals.

“How can we go after those kind of folks?” Smith said. “It’s those bad actors that are responsible for the bad image we have, and we need something that is fair and equitable to everyone.”

Lawmakers hope to enact H.35 this session. Two separate water quality bills failed to gain passage last year.

MARIE AUDET AND Paul Wagner, both of Bridport, visit before the start of Monday’s ag lunch in Bridport.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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