What do Act 64 regulations mean for Addison County farmers?
This is Part III in a three-part series. Alongside pressures like falling milk prices and increasing production costs, farmers are charged with the financial, physical and emotional task of remediating Otter Creek’s water quality. What does this mean for Addison County farmers, and is their burden a fair one?
On Route 17 in New Haven, about a dozen miles upstream from where the Otter Creek empties into Lake Champlain, a small farm sits on a hillside. Cows graze in its grassy fields with a backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains. The creek winds past the barn and snakes between its pastures, so intertwined with the land that cows cross a bridge to get from one field to the next.
The landscape is iconic and beautiful, something you’d find on Vermont postcards and sewn onto throw pillows. It combines two pillars of the state — local agriculture and nature — both of which many residents care about passionately. Both are important economically: the state’s agriculture industry is valued at about $2.6 billion, and its outdoor recreation industry at $1.5 billion.
But that exact scene, where farm meets river, has become the center of an important conversation taking place across the state, and particularly in Addison County, which is home to 170,000 acres of agricultural land.
The Otter Creek Basin delivers 140.5 metric tons of phosphorus pollution to Lake Champlain every year. Of that, 68.9 metric tons, about 50 percent, is attributed to agriculture. That’s more than any other sector in any other watershed in Lake Champlain’s basin.
Compared to its landmass, the amount of pollution produced per acre is relatively low in the Otter Creek basin. While Missisquoi Bay, for example, is responsible for reducing its annual phosphorus pollution by 64.3 percent over the next several decades, the Otter Creek is only responsible for a 23.6 percent reduction because the intensity of pollution in the watershed is less.
But the implementation of that 23.6 percent reduction falls mostly on farmers in Addison County, where the industry is currently challenged by high production costs and, for dairy farmers, low milk prices.
According to a recent census by the USDA, the number of farms in Addison County has decreased by 11.5 percent, from 814 farms in 2012 to 720 farms in 2017. Total farming acreage, number of milk cows, income from milk sales and average net farm income all decreased during that time period. The number of dairy farms dwindled from 140 to 96 — a 31 percent drop.
Compounding the stress on local dairy farmers, Vermont’s 2015 Clean Water Act is both mandating and incentivizing changes on Vermont farms for the sake of water quality. While some of the area’s farmers are ahead of the curve, others feel the cost of these projects is out of reach.
Riverside farms have existed for centuries in the Otter Creek basin. Today, however, those farms increasingly bear the burden of preventing a legacy of fertilized land from washing into the creek.
A NEW PART OF AN OLD JOB
Brian and Cindy Kayhart own that iconic 410-acre farm in New Haven. The Kayhart-Chalker Farm sells beef, dairy, pork, poultry and sometimes maple syrup in a roadside farm stand. While the business is called Kayhart’s Homegrown Meats, Cindy and Brian included “Chalker” in the farm’s name to honor its previous owner and the legacy of farming that has occurred on this land since 1823.
Farming is Cindy’s job, but it’s also her life. She grew up on the farm; her father studied agriculture at the University of Massachusetts and got a loan through a program there, which he used to buy the land.
“Every season is different, every day is different,” she said. “I walk across the road at 3 o’clock in the morning to go down to the barn, and in the spring you hear the peepers, and in the winter you could hear a pin drop, it’s so quiet. It’s the best time of the day. And then you open the barn door and you can hear the cows breathing. I just love what I do.”
With 75 dairy and 75 beef cows, the Kayhart-Chalker farm is considered small by the state. The Clean Water Act requires small farms to comply with a list of Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) for the first time to reduce their impact on water quality.
With the help of $26,658 worth of cost-share grants from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Clean Water Initiative Program, plus additional funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Kayharts have changed much of the landscape of their farm within the past 10 years to comply with water quality standards.
“We do things 100 percent different than Cindy’s father did, even than what we did when we first started,” Brian said.
The aid helped them resurface a barn floor to funnel manure to appropriate holding tanks, put the cows into fenced pastures away from the creek, and move corn from the stream banks to help combat erosion.
The soil closest to the river is particularly fertile, creating the perfect growing environment for corn, which can withstand the land’s significant annual floods. But many farmers fertilize corn, and phosphate-heavy fertilizer leaches into the river. Its roots are relatively shallow and don’t effectively prevent the erosion of stream banks. Because of this, Brian and Cindy removed corn from the riverbanks.
“We put 17 or 20 acres of our best corn ground into pasture, but it remains to be seen what we can plant that can tolerate being under water,” Cindy said, to which Brian added: “I’m sure there’s plenty of people who would tell you we’re nuts, pasturing the creek ground.”
And the clean water projects haven’t been easy to implement. A fencing project had to stop temporarily because of flooding.
An underpass, built when the state replaced the bridge over the Otter Creek on Route 17, crumbled about a year ago and wasn’t fixed until this month. It allows the Kayharts to walk cows from pasture to pasture across the stream, instead of trucking them across the road, like they used to do. Walking the cows directly through the river, of course, is not an option.
“This just isn’t easy,” Cindy said. “It’s not a cut-and-dry thing.”
EYES ON FARMERS
In 2015, the passage the Clean Water Act, or Act 64, brought much attention to water quality issues in the state. Act 64’s expression of the acute problem in Lake Champlain is rooted in solid data. But it uses a broad brush to paint a picture of agriculture with its statement that 41 percent of phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain comes from farming.
The Act, a result of decades’ worth of research and the top of a steep learning curve for the state, was presented in one sweeping dose, delivering news that farmers held great responsibility alongside a message of urgency, that the health of the lake is crumbling and we have to act now.
Heads turned toward farmers, some of whom were digesting the information at the same time as the general public.
To ensure that farmers would have a voice in legislative issues, a group of what started as 13 local farmers formed the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition in 2012. Today, CVFC has more than 150 members.
Its mission, stated on its website, reads “The Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition is a group of farmers in the Lake Champlain Basin who have taken a leadership role to show that farm economic resiliency and a clean lake can work together.”
The group does everything from testifying on relevant bills in Montpelier to running field studies to trying out new practices.
Brian Kemp, its president, manages Mountain Meadow Farm in Sudbury. Mountain Meadow is a beef farm that is crossed in several places by the Lemon Fair River, a tributary to the Otter Creek. The farm is in a good position: it’s well-funded by its owner, cancer pathologist Amiel Cooper, who lives in Massachusetts, and it sells to high-end retailer Whole Foods.
With financial and technical assistance from NRCS, Kemp has taken so many measures to protect the water that the farm has been locally and nationally recognized for sustainability. The most notable changes included a decision to fence cows out of 88 acres of pasture land near the river and installing a new barn that helps with manure storage in the winter.
Now, Kemp and other members of the Coalition host workshops to help other area farmers install projects of their own. The Coalition is currently working to help farmers transition away from tilling and toward cover cropping and manure injection. In an effort to educate on a broader level, all of those workshops are open to the public.
“The public education is a challenge,” Kemp said. “I think there’s a lot of misconceptions. But if you want your food to be local, you’ve got to support ag. It’s a fine line to keep everyone happy.”
Many farmers say they feel judged by a public that doesn’t understand their work.
“Even if they read it, they don’t understand it,” Cindy said. “You have to walk on the ground and look at it.”
Cindy recalls a time when the Kayhart-Chalker Farm had a sick calf. Brian was on top of it, giving the calf a supplemental bottle of milk and its medications as needed. But someone drove by and saw the calf, which looked malnourished, and reported the farm without talking to the Kayharts first. It wasn’t related to water quality, but Cindy realized that some of the public had lost trust in local farming.
“How can you just drive by?” she said. “One time, drive by, and file a complaint that could mean the farmer’s livelihood.”
A FAIR BURDEN?
Kirsten Workman and Jeff Carter work as agronomy specialists with Middlebury’s branch of UVM Extension, a program that offers guidance and technical knowledge to farmers. Between the two of them, they know most of the farmers’ stories in Addison County.
One day, sitting at the same large conference table at Extension’s offices in Middlebury where the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition meets each month, Workman and Carter described the judgment and guilt felt by local farmers.
It’s not that all farming practices are good, they both say. It’s that the bad stories are widely-circulated, drowning out the good ones.
“You have farmers who are doing everything right,” Workman said. “They’re following their nutrient management plan, they’ve got their buffers, and they say, ‘I feel like a criminal every time I go out there to spread manure because of all of this.’”
Carter and Workman believe that, over the past decade, most farmers in the Otter Creek basin have been conscientious, implementing best management practices in ways that help water quality. The data backs this up: In the watershed, the agriculture sector has reduced its annual phosphorus contribution by 216 kilograms from state-sponsored projects alone, according to the 2018 Clean Water Investment Report. The industry has a long way to go, though; the goal is to reduce phosphorus by 32.9 metric tons per year.
Angie Allen, the watershed’s Tactical Basin Planner, will release a comprehensive plan detailing the health of the basin at the beginning of October. For the first time, that plan will include not only the state’s investments in agricultural best management practices, but also the investments made by individual farmers, non-governmental organizations like UVM Extension, and federal organizations like NRCS.
That’s important because, according to Carter, farmers are more likely to reach out to local organizations, like UVM Extension, with whom they have already been in contact, rather than to state agencies. It’s often difficult for farmers to tell whether state officials are concerned with helping or regulating them, he said.
“We work with these people,” Carter said. “They trust us.”
Local officials also say the state can gain a more accurate understanding of the best management practices that are currently in place — and report the respective reduction in phosphorus — if they include more organizations outside of what is funded by the state.
“Our data do support the fact that over time more practices are being put onto the fields in the basin,” Allen said. “Crop rotation, cover cropping and corn-to-hay conversion are the practices that are increasing the most.”
PROGRESS, BUT IS IT ENOUGH?
Even so, concerned citizens point to blue-green algae blooms in the lake and feel as though little is being done.
Extensive data monitoring by the state and the EPA revealed that, between the years of 2001 and 2010, 921.6 metric tons of phosphorus were loaded into Lake Champlain annually. Assuming that phosphorus loading has remained approximately the same since then, Lake Champlain contains more than 17,500 metric tons of phosphorus from the past two decades alone.
That phosphorus isn’t going anywhere fast and represents a lasting impact on the lake’s water quality.
One conundrum is trying to assess the progress made by new farm practices and the impact of legacy phosphorus. Many of the algae blooms seen in Lake Champlain today, farm advocates say, are the result of phosphorus that has leached into its waters over a matter of decades.
And while it’s true that agriculture in the Otter Creek basin produces 68.9 metric tons of phosphorus per year, scientists have no way of telling how much of that phosphorus comes from the practices of today’s farmers or from the people who farmed the land a century ago.
Eric Smeltzer, now retired, was the state’s chief lake scientist when the Total Maximum Daily Load, the document that names the sources of phosphorus pollution and how much they’re responsible for reducing, was created.
He explains that the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), which determined how much phosphorus was produced by different kinds of land use in each of Lake Champlain’s sub-watersheds, does not distinguish current agricultural practices from legacy phosphorus.
“There was no good way during this process to distinguish between agricultural loads generated solely by current-day farming activities versus loads that were the result of historic activities such as long-term over-fertilization of some fields,” he wrote in an email. “The model and calibration process essentially lumped the two together.”
It’s also true that some of the phosphorus running off agricultural land is not produced by its farmers. Water from high elevations within the basin trickles through forests, over backyards, roads and buildings until it’s either funneled into storm water drains, absorbed into the soil or sent directly into the creek.
Because many farms exist along streams, forming a barrier between the rest of the basin and the rivers, they receive runoff from other areas in the watershed.
The Kayharts built a new ditch to infiltrate nutrient-heavy runoff into the soil on their farm. There’s a small mountain to the northeast of the farm that collects water and sends it in the Kayhart’s direction.
“The engineers calculated the runoff from the mountain and the road for our field ditch to hold,” Cindy said. “It wasn’t based on the water coming off of our fields at all, it was running down off Route 17 and down off the hill.”
Farmland could provide a valuable solution to water quality problems if it could filter the water from the surrounding basin before running into the stream. But Carter and Workman, sitting at that conference table, voiced collective frustration about the disproportionate burden that concept places on farmers.
“We rely on them to accept all our runoff from higher in the watershed,” Workman said. “We’re getting heavier rain storms, and we need them to deal with that.”
“We’re going to rely on them to take all of your food waste scrap, because of mandatory laws,” Carter added.
“Oh yeah,” Workman said, “and feed us. Cheaply. But I’m going to call and complain if I think you’re doing it wrong.”
“The reality is, they’re (the state and larger community) relying on agriculture,” Carter said with grit in his teeth and a glint in his eye. “And that’s okay, because we feel strongly that we can do this.”
The discussion about how to bolster both water quality and agriculture in Vermont has evolved greatly in the past decade, becoming more polarized and more productive in the same moment.
Many farmers are enduring difficulty — whether it’s with regard to implementing best management practices or trouble with the public perception (and sometimes misperception) of agriculture’s relationship to water quality. But that difficulty comes alongside an increasingly ailing Lake Champlain.
Some scientists and water quality advocates say that best management practices on the farm don’t go far enough to protect water. These critiques often question whether the state should continue importing substances that contain phosphorus at the current rate.
Farmers have long imported feed and fertilizer into Lake Champlain’s basin at volumes that are higher than deemed necessary. According to a 2018 study published by UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment, Vermont has accumulated between 1,000 and 4,500 tons of surplus phosphorus annually for the past 90 years. That leaves the basin with 240,000 tons of existing excess phosphorus to deal with — and that number grows each year.
The study cites three counties that continue to accumulate phosphorus at high rates — Franklin, Orleans and Addison. Addison County amasses about 314 tons of surplus phosphorus annually.
Like giving the goalie the responsibility in a game of soccer, many of Vermont’s clean water projects focus on stopping phosphorus pollution from entering the stream, rather than stopping the importation of phosphorus in the first place.
Michael Wironen, lead author of the Gund Institute’s study, suggests that Vermont reconsider the rate at which it imports nutrients.
“These findings reveal the magnitude of Vermont’s phosphorus problem — and show that our efforts to deal with it need to consider the phosphorus entering our state, and not only the part that washes into our rivers and lakes,” he stated for an article on the UVM’s news page.
Former organic dairy farmer James Maroney of Leicester recently completed a master’s degree at Vermont Law School. He believes that the fastest way to improve the lake’s water quality is to change the paradigm of conventional farming — abolish the importation of grain and fertilizers altogether.
Essentially, his argument is that all farmers should be required, and paid, to go organic.
“Conventional dairy,” Maroney said, “with state support, is importing nutrients, which go into the cow, into the manure, out onto the land and into the lake. The state has no duty to protect dairy farming. There is no justification for protecting dairy farming. Clean water is an absolute duty, not a relative one.”
The Gund Institute’s study suggests that, instead of blocking the importation of all fertilizer and feed, Vermont farmers can adopt precision feeding — staying within the bounds of each animal’s daily phosphorus requirement.
This suggestion is more complicated than it seems. The study also points out that farming in the state has greatly intensified in the last century.
“Between 1925 and 2012 (the last year of available data), livestock density per acre of farmland has increased 250 percent,” the UVM article reads. “Average milk production has also jumped — from less than 5,000 pounds to more than 20,000 pounds of milk per animal — an increase of nearly 500 percent.”
The only way to accomplish that kind of increase, the study says, is by “feeding animals like high performance athletes.”
It seems, as Maroney says, that the state’s economic model for farming — especially when it comes to dairy — does not benefit Vermont’s waters, and puts farmers in a position of choosing between the two.
“If I could put my finger on one thing I could change, it’s not the farmers, it’s the legislators,” Maroney said.
But his ideas have not caught on, likely because legislators can’t imagine the push-back after asking — never mind mandating — that all farms go organic.
This exchange is captured in the minutes of the most recent Clean Water Board meeting, at which Maroney asked the board, “Do you believe the state has a plan to meet the 59 percent agriculture reduction and can it be done under the current conventional paradigm?” To which Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets gave the flat response, “Farming takes many forms including organic, conventional and others. There cannot be just one type of farming.”
Other farmers echo this opinion.
“I don’t believe that Vermont should be mandating the type of farming that you do,” Brian Kemp said. “If you meet the compliance rules, you should be able to farm the way you want. There’s plenty of good organic farmers and plenty of good conventional farmers, and it comes down to management.”
Workman says that one step in the right direction is UVM Extension teaching farmers to limit the amount of phosphorus that’s used on area farms.
“Conservation agronomy is just good, basic agronomy,” she said. “The basics of growing a good crop would mean that you don’t have nutrient runoff, that you don’t lose soil, that you’re being super efficient with your fertilizers and manure applications, and you’re growing the highest yield crop you can with the fewest amount of resources.”
THE THIRD PILLAR
If agriculture and nature are two pillars of Vermont’s economy and identity, perhaps the third is a community that fosters civil discourse and mutual understanding.
Over a matter of centuries, the Otter Creek has strung together its watershed’s inhabitants by offering an energy source for the area’s first businesses, irrigation and fertile soils for farming, waters for exploring, and its floodplains have even provided a safety net from the worst storms that have threatened the area.
Now, the Otter Creek watershed offers an opportunity for its residents to connect through a difficult but worthy conversation.
Interviews with area farmers revealed frustration, not that the industry needs to comply with clean water regulations, but that the public often expresses judgment toward an industry it doesn’t always understand.
“Vermont is a small, very unique place where the majority of people in our state live rurally, and they run up against farming every day,” Workman said. “They might be behind a manure spreader on their way to work in the morning. But they’re not connected to agriculture. So when they see the manure spreader, they make this assumption — they’re up against it all the time, but they don’t have the context to put it in.”
While the farming community and the water quality community seem separate at times, the past decade has seen them become increasingly interconnected. The State’s Department of Environmental Conservation recognizes farmers as partners; officials at the state understand that many famers want to be part of the solution.
“They’re stepping up,” said Emily Bird, manager of the Vermont’s Clean Water Initiative Program. “Farmers are doing a lot of really great work. Most of the phosphorus reductions that we have been able to account for are from the work that farmers are doing to install conservation practices.”
When Eric Smeltzer started his job as an environmental scientist at the state in 1980, the Agency of Agriculture and the Agency of Natural Resources seemed to have different missions.
“One of the biggest, most positive changes I saw in my career,” he said, “is the recognition across different sectors, starting with agencies in state government, but extending to the whole citizenry of Vermont, that we’ve all got to work together to address the water quality problem.”
Emma Cotton discussed her series on VPR News on September 19. Click here to listen to the show, "The Otter Creek's Role in Vermont's History and Environmental Health."