Editorial: Finding balance between farm practices and water quality

In the third of a three-part series examining the historic and current role of the Otter Creek in Addison County, and its current status as the heaviest conveyor of phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain, we turn a sympathetic ear to the burden placed on farmers by Act 64. 

In previous installments, we’ve been reminded that the deteriorating quality of the water in Lake Champlain has been a long time coming. From the early days of commercial, industrial and agricultural development, the Otter Creek has been a conduit for groundwater pollution as have almost all rivers and streams in developed parts of the nation. We’ve learned that phosphorus use over the past 200 or more years (in the forms of fertilizers and manure) has created layers of legacy phosphorus in Addison County soils that won’t dissipate anytime soon. And we know that run-off from forestlands, municipal dirt roads, asphalt parking lots and many other sources of nonpoint pollution often all feed into the streams and rivers that are part of the water quality problems affecting Lake Champlain and other impacted lakes throughout the state.

In today’s story, we hear how many area farmers are helping to lessen their phosphorus load, and how a local group of farmers — the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition — is working among themselves to share best practices and help each other take the necessary steps to improve the Otter Creek Basin’s water quality.

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We can debate whether these steps are sufficient to control the problem, but in doing so we should also understand each others’ plight. As reporter Emma Cotton aptly demonstrates in this series, there are two treasured commodities at stake in this discussion: Vermont’s farming heritage and its economic and social impact on the state, and the state’s environmental heritage and rich recreational opportunities.

When debating water quality and the needed solutions, the knee-jerk response is to blame the single largest polluters and expect them to solve the problem — regardless of the economic or social impact on those individuals or on the towns in which they live. In that reaction, there is little demonstrated concern about who should shoulder the burden of legacy phosphorus; little concern about the financial viability of farmers who have to make costly sacrifices; little public ownership of the 40-50 percent of the phosphorus pollution caused by non-farm sources.

That lack of acknowledgement and understanding could lead legislators and the public to pursue overly simplistic solutions, and create resentment among those expected to carry the heaviest lift.

While casting such blame and harboring resentment has occurred, it doesn’t have to be the expectation going forward and there are encouraging signs that it won’t be. 

First, farmers in Addison County, at least, are taking active steps to implement strategies that will reduce their phosphorus use. Farm techniques like crop rotation, keeping livestock away from the riverside and planting pasture grasses instead of corn on the fertile riverbed soils are commonsense practices that will reduce soil erosion and runoff that eventually flows into the lake. Soil and farm scientists have done studies demonstrating the excessive use of phosphorus-laden fertilizers and evidence that it could be significantly reduced without affecting high agricultural yields. These are the first steps towards a better outcome.

More may need to be done. As a community we should discuss and understand the implications of reducing — or almost eliminating — all but the bare minimum of phosphorus use on area farmland. Is it feasible, what would it mean to the farm economy and to our individual farm families? What are the viable alternatives? And don’t forget that the use of fertilizers to drive up farm output is all predicated on a federal cheap-food policy that most consumers appreciate. If we expect area farmers to eliminate the products that create higher yields and cheaper foods, we’ll have to be willing to pay for higher priced goods.

It is, in short, a complex problem. 

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The good news is that most area farmers are eager to be better stewards of their land and of the water around them. They are, by nature, environmentalists, but they are caught up in an economic foundation set in place generations ago that too often pits their family’s financial security against best environmental practices. For the sake of the county’s (and state’s) farm economy, as well as the state’s water quality, we need to help them make the needed transitions.

The obvious goal should be to create a viable farm economy that also reverses the current high levels of phosphorus pollution. Both sides want that to happen. How we get there is not just the art of politics, but also of community collaboration.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100