How can Vermont better support land stewards?


BRIAN KEMP, A member of the Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group, said farmers should get paid for the work they do to help the ecosystem, but he doesn’t think taxpayers should be the source of payment. Independent file photo/Emma Cotton
If (farmers) got paid an adequate price for milk, we wouldn’t need payment for ecosystem services. — Tyler Webb

WATERBURY — A group of farmers, agricultural organizations and state and federal regulators last week began developing a plan for paying Vermont farmers to implement conservation projects on their land. 

The case for this is simple: 

Vermont has 1.2 million acres of agricultural land and must meet ambitious water quality goals set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water Act. As Vermont dairy farmers face the fifth year of low milk prices — sometimes below the cost of production — some say those farmers should be paid for the conservation work and the environmental services their working lands provide or else the farms won’t be able to stay in business.

“(Farmers) are forced into a situation where they are depleting the natural capital,” said Tyler Webb, of the Franklin and Grand Isle Farmer’s Watershed Alliance. “If we got paid an adequate price for milk, we wouldn’t need payment for ecosystem services. But then it’s only the people buying milk who are paying for that service. If everybody chips in, maybe we can get to that sweet spot where there’s vibrancy and innovation in the dairy economy that supports sustainability in the holistic sense of the word.”  

Webb is a member of the group called the Soil Conservation Practice and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group that was authorized by the Legislature in May and met for the first time on Monday, Sept. 30, in Waterbury. Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Alyson Eastman of Orwell chairs the group. Brian Kemp, president of the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition, is a group member. 

Ecosystem services are the benefits a landscape offers people, such as clean water and air quality, trees for lumber, nutrients in the soil and the cultural value of our natural surroundings. In other words, according to a report presented Monday by researchers at the Gund Institute, payment for ecosystem services involves paying land managers to voluntarily steward natural resources that the public derives from their privately held land.

Legislators hope to create new financial incentives to encourage Vermont farmers to take on farming practices that go beyond what is currently required to improve soil health, enhance crop resilience, increase carbon and stormwater storage and reduce agricultural runoff into local waterways.

The idea is to create a system where, instead of simply being fined or penalized for not meeting prescribed standards for ecologically minded farming practices, farms that have met that baseline standard are given financial incentives to do more.

The working group will present a report by Jan. 15, 2020, that dictates:

•Which ecological services farmers should be paid or incentivized to provide and enhance, along with a set of agricultural standards or practices farmers can implement to provide them.

•Which existing financial incentives could be modified to support farmers being paid for ecosystem services.

•A revenue stream for any new financial incentives deemed necessary.

•Any legislative changes necessary to create a revenue stream for payment for ecosystem services.

Last Monday’s meeting included a review of the existing regulations that farms must meet to satisfy state and federal water quality standards. Currently, Vermont farms of all sizes must comply with the state’s Required Agricultural Practices, or RAPs. The state has ramped up its surveillance of farms, requiring even small operations to formally manage and report impacts such as erosion and soil health through Nutrient Management Plans and annual reports to the Agency of Agriculture since 2016. 

This past spring, a group of graduate students at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute was tasked with developing a hypothetical system of payment for ecosystem services in Vermont. Taylor Ricketts, professor of Environment and Natural Resources, presented their findings at Monday’s working group meeting: 

“In setting goals, we need to ask ourselves, what ecosystem services do we want to pay for? How do we measure whether they were delivered? Who pays for the service? Who administers the system and how do we balance fairness and equity?”

BASELINE STANDARDS

For example, in order to determine the value of a given farm’s offering of an ecosystem service, a set of baseline standards must be set against which progress can be measured. It can be tricky to set a financial incentive when some farms have voluntarily taken steps to help the environment while other farms have been polluting.

“The literature indicates that PES (Payment for Ecosystems Services) systems that are perceived as equitable are the most viable in the long run because they get the most buy-in. Though if you are using public funds to finance a PES, the most efficient investment for the public good is in new conservation efforts,” Ricketts said. “It will be up to this body to discuss that.”

The Gund Institute Model advocates for paying the stewards of private lands (farmers) for measurable gains in the ecosystem services they provide, with a focus on phosphorus and nitrogen retention and carbon sequestration. Under that hypothetical model, farmers would be paid for the outcomes they deliver, not the practices they put in place. The full white paper report, which is supported by academic research but bears no regulatory weight, is available online.

“This is just one possible system, which we hope will inspire conversation,” Ricketts said.

Other possible models discussed included using the state’s RAP program as a baseline, so that only farms that have already met those standards could participate in the program, as is the standard for the Agency of Agriculture’s Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP).  

Judson Kepp, director of VESP, on Monday told the working group that the Agency of Agriculture is working on a pilot project to establish “ecological baselines” for Vermont farmland, drawing on tools developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Cornell University. 

Since 2013, the project has offeredVermont farmers a special certification for attaining standards of stewardship if they go beyond what is required by the state’s Required Agricultural Practices. Agency of Agriculture staff work with farms to identify ways to meet those goals and farmers get a certificate of participation once they achieve them.

“The Vermont Agency of Agriculture believes that VESP could be a framework that the working group uses,” Kepp told the board Monday. 

Participants asked: 

-Should the state of Vermont create a revenue source to pay farmers for ecosystem services? 

-Which ecosystem services most serve the public interest? 

-If some services such as soil structure and health benefit the farmer in addition to providing a benefit to the public, should the public be expected to pay for those services? 

-How can the state devise a Payment for Ecosystem Services plan that will serve portions of the state fairly and how should the valuation of different services be structured? 

“At the end of the day, unless our economy restructures itself so that people are rewarded for producing the right sort of product, we are not going to be able to sustain this sort of production,” said Chuck Ross, executive director of UVM Extension and a member of the working group. “We need to ask, are these ecosystem service payments transitional payments or permanent?... If they are transitional, who gets the subsidy and for how long?”

Brian Kemp, in a separate conversation, said that he hopes the group can develop a system that is self-sustaining to fund PES. 

“We as farmers feel that the general public is a recipient of ecosystem services we provide, but I don’t think the taxpayers should bear the burden of this. We in the ag community are not looking for another crutch, or for taxpayers to be supporting us in another way,” Kemp said. “The whole idea here is to create infrastructure that supports another revenue source separate from the commodity we currently sell that gives us a diverse profile. If we can help save the climate, help with flood resiliency, build better soils doing so, everybody benefits.”   

Information about upcoming meetings can be found at agriculture.vermont.gov/pes. Public comment can be submitted via email to AGR.WaterQuality@vermont.gov.

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