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Capitol of Vermont in Montpelier, from the General Government and State Capitol Buildings series (N14) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes Brands

Our Response to Vermont’s Proposed Required Agricultural Practices

I applaud Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets—herein referred to as “The Agency”—for trying to move the state’s water quality in the right direction. When our wonderful Senator Campion stood in my barnyard one morning a year or so ago and asked me my thoughts on a hypothetical program, I was all for it. I scanned our own farm real quick and saw a few places where wet manure piles could get cleaned up and should get cleaned up. As regular readers will know, we take pride in our effort to make our farm a part of the environmental solution—not a part of the problem. So, we’re happy to learn when we’re wrong and happy to learn how to be right.

Water quality is vital to our state’s citizens, wildlife, economy, ecosystem, and farms. Which is why, frankly, more alarming to me than the RAPs is the recent discovery in the state and region of cancer-causing PFOA pollution in people’s private water wells from the Saint-Gobain and Taconic Plastics factories. But, I digress….

I think that it is well within reason to expect (and ask) the Agency of Agriculture to make sure that agricultural practices within the state are not contributing to the degradation of Vermont’s water. They’ve taken on a monumental task that is rife with political interests, highly emotional for all involved, and saddled by a seven-sided debate. So no, I don’t envy their task. They’re in a pickle.

I respectfully submit, for The Agency’s review and for any interested parties, our following critique of the RAPs and my suggestions for alternative approaches.

General Assessment of Vermont’s RAPs

Vermont’s RAPs attempt to “control and reduce agricultural non-point source pollution and subsequent nutrient losses from farm fields and production areas.” I applaud the effort, but the proposed practices miss the mark and The Agency knows it. As proposed, the RAPs are wrong about the source of the problem, the scale of the problem—and therefore the strategy for correcting the problem.

The Source of the Problem

I find it more than a little disconcerting that The Agency proposed a set of required practices to address the state’s water quality issues without ONCE mentioning synthetic fertilizers in their proposal.

Lake Champlain is being choked to death by algal blooms caused by phosphorus pollution. Lake Champlain is surrounded by a bowl of agricultural land that makes heavy use of water-soluble synthetic “NPK” fertilizers. “NPK” means Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. And “water-soluable” means that the fertilizer dissolves into water—making it immediately available to the plants.

Unfortunately, spreading water-soluble phosphorus on much of the land uphill of a lake means that much of that phosphorus will be carried by water into the lake.

To compound the problem, heavy tillage of agricultural land increases the flow of agricultural runoff into that body of water by: exposing bare soil to flooding; exposing bare soil to erosion; removing the highly-adsorbent organic matter in the soil to the “evaporative” effect of oxidation; and killing off a soil’s organic-matter-creating microbiology. Organic matter in the soil acts as a sponge—holding onto water and nutrients. And current agricultural practices remove organic matter from the soil.

It’s like pouring Kool-Aid down a child’s slide that has been lined with sponges…and then removing the sponges. There’s only one place that pelleted water-soluble phosphorus COULD end up.

I’m not the only one saying this, of course. It is a well-known problem.

And this is not a problem exclusive to the land around the lake. This is happening all across Vermont. Our water is polluted because our soils are degraded.

The Scale of the Problem

I was sitting in our farmhouse today before breakfast and Angus ran up to me with a tractor book from Uncle Jim’s impressive collection. “Read it?! Read it!? Read the tractor book?” I lifted him to my knee, flopped open the book, and discovered this quote:

The new-fangled tractors will be the ruination of the farmer because they don’t make no manure.
Tractor non-believer’s proverb, circa 1920

Given the context of the quote—within a book celebrating the supreme efficiency of tractors—I assume it was printed there to poke fun at the folks silly enough to fear the ramifications of a shift from biological farming to industrial farming. But, from where I stand—as a farmer working every day to undo the compaction, degradation, biological devastation, and decline in the land’s fertility that “tractor farming” brought about—I find the quote to be quite comforting and prescient.

As I’ve covered in an earlier post, grass and grazers are two parts of one system. The soil needs manure (organic matter) just as the sheep need the grass. Up and down. Round and round. As I teach my two-year-old: Soil, Grass, Sheep, Poop, Soil, Grass, Sheep, Poop, Soil. (Patent Pending: NATURE, INC.)

By neglecting to even mention water-soluble NPK and devoting the majority of the new RAPs to their prescriptions for the handling of manure and livestock, The Agency villainizes—what I would call—biological farming. Adding manure to the soil—whether through regular mechanical spreading or proper rotation of livestock—replenishes the soil’s stock of organic matter—making soil more able to hold water and nutrients, and feeding the soil’s microbiology. Properly handled manure is the solution. Not the problem.

Now, of course, there are manure piles and lagoons and pits that cause problems for the state’s water quality. Those should get cleaned up. Overgrazing livestock degrades land—making it more susceptible to agricultural runoff and erosion. That should stop.

But, what we need from our own Agency of Agriculture is not to further villainize family farming by painting manure and livestock as the problem. We need our Agency of Agriculture to look at the ten ton elephant on the dining table and do something to promote water quality through the restoration of our state’s agricultural soils.

Healthy soils adsorb water and bond with nutrients—preventing agricultural runoff. A 1% increase in organic matter across an acre of land will retain an additional 16,000 gallons of water. If all the farms in the bowl of land around Lake Champlain made increasing the organic matter in the soil a priority, water—and therefore phosphorus—would stay uphill of the lake where the crops can get it. Lake Champlain would clean up so quickly that Governor Shumlin could still credibly take credit for it.

And The Agency knows this stuff. They get it exactly right in section 6.04 of the RAPs, paragraph A:

Soil management activities that increase organic matter, reduce compaction, promote biological activity, reduce erosion, and maintain appropriate nutrient levels shall be considered and implemented as practicable. Practices that promote these goals include reduced tillage, conservation tillage, avoiding mechanical activities on saturated soils, addition of organic matter using manure, green manures and compost, sod and legume rotations, and the use of cover crops.

When presenting the strongest ideas in the RAPs, The Agency uses the weakest language. The practices that could actually make a difference for Vermont “shall be considered and implemented as practicable.” Weak tea. Farmers unsold on the benefits of regenerative practices and without the luxury of time or money to experiment will read those lines and breathe a sigh of relief: “Oh thank f*ck I don’t have to do those.”

Which…leads me to my final point.

The Agency’s Strategy

The scale of the problem is so big that the “do-this-or-else” approach that The Agency has chosen cannot work. It can only do two things:

  1. Address fringe issues by annoying farmers with ineffective and unenforceable laws, or;
  2. Make some actually-effective practices required by law…and push all but a few farmers out of the state.

The Agency, clearly, has chosen #1. By creating an Agency-vs-Farmers dynamic with their REQUIRED agricultural practices, The Agency is working against their own best interests. Farmers are already defensive. And understandably so.

For example, I’m about as environmentally-conscious a farmer as ever there was. I care deeply about water quality. I want to see the state’s natural environment restored to its natural abundance. If ever there were a farmer most likely to welcome these new laws, it’d be me. And yet, when The Agency comes knocking on my door to start bossing me around, I tense up like a Guard Donkey in a field of strangers. Farmers are proudly independent people. We are our own bosses. And we like it that way very much thank you. Town is … back that way.

The Agency’s role in this state is not to boss us around. The Agency’s role is to help us sell our products, to help us do the right thing ecologically, and to help us carry on (and pass on) Vermont’s agricultural legacy.

Another Approach: My Two Cents

Making enemies of the state’s farmers by requiring that we collude in work that WON’T solve the real problem is not good for The Agency and it is not good for Vermont’s water. This is a real issue that needs effective and properly targeted action—not any action for the sake of it.

The real cause of the water problem—synthetic water-soluble fertilizers sprayed on soil that’s been degraded by decades of widespread heavy tillage, synthetic fertilizers, mismanaged livestock, fallow ground, pesticides, and herbicides—cannot be addressed with laws. Threatening to make farmers into criminals is a poor strategy. Laws requiring that farmers change anything but the fringes of their operations would be a disaster for the state. Such a move would convince farmers that are already struggling and frustrated and tired that RIGHT NOW would be a mighty good time to take that pesky housing developer up on his offer. Large tracts of open land would be Jersey’d. Vermont would change.

There’s very little money in farming right now. Price margins on food are too slim for most (especially small) farmers to carve out respectable salaries, healthcare, retirement funds, educational savings, taxes, etc. I drive around this state and my eyes well up in tears when I see the incredible number of farms in our hills with collapsed barns, dilapidated farmhouses, toppled silos, and rusting equipment. Small farms are fragile.

If The Agency would like to see farming improve ecologically in this state then it should create programs to reward farmers economically in this state. How about Rewarded Agricultural Practices? That way The Agency would be free to strongly advocate for the right solution AND would have an easier time getting farmers to consider it.

  • Want to be friendly with the farmers you seek to govern? Help them sell their food.
  • Want to see a farmer smile when you pull in? Bring a check.
  • Want a farmer to change his ways? Add another zero.

I made some rookie mistakes, I think, when I pitched that the Agency of Agriculture launch a Regenerative Agriculture Certification Program. There are points in the bill that can and will be improved for when we reintroduce it to the legislature—but I think the intent of the bill is sound:

The Agency of Agriculture can and should reward farmers monetarily—either directly or indirectly—for doing the right thing ecologically. Nobody is going to save the world if it doesn’t feed a family.

How Does The Agency Reward Farmers Directly?

  1. I propose passing a state-wide tax on carbon-based fuels. Any oil, coal, or gas company bringing carbon-based fuels into Vermont (and therefore directly profiting from the carbon pollution in our state’s atmosphere) should be required to pay a tax upon entry. The fund created by that tax should be paid, in part, to the farmers who are removing the carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering in into the soil as organic matter—thereby improving the fertility of their own lands by using the the practices suggested in the RAPs section 6.04, paragraph A.
  2. For any farmers willing to transition a portion of their production acres to strictly regenerative practices, The Agency should insure them against any potential losses of revenue for up to three years. This would eliminate the risk for farmers and free them to experiment with the practices suggested in the RAPs section 6.04, paragraph A. The farmer would be compensated fully should any losses occur (they wouldn’t) using regenerative practices, and—if the practices were performed properly—the farmer would see incredible improvements in production, revenue, and the fertility of their land…and the surrounding state water. In nearly all cases, the state would pay out no money.

How Does The Agency Reward Farmers Indirectly?

  1. Get on the phone with New York, Massachusetts, Japan. The Agency of Agriculture should be helping farmers find—and creating new—markets for Vermont food. Our state’s food brand is great, but tarnishing. GMOs, CAFOs, monocultures, degraded fields, poverty, and heroine are becoming the reality of Vermont’s rural landscapes. We need—desperately—to export food and import dollars. Farmers are too busy farming and scraping by to find new markets alone. The Agency of Agriculture should connect Vermont food with out-of-state high-value markets. I want to be able to call The Agency’s Hotline at 1-802-SELL-VT-FOOD and talk to someone at The Agency who found a market for my soil-building, planet-cooing, nutrient-dense chicken and a truck to take it there.
  2. Promote pasture-based regenerative meat by creating a Northeastern Foodshed Alliance. I live in a border town. West is New York. South is Massachusetts. Anywhere you farm in Vermont you’re close to another state. If I want to sell my meat in stores in the markets closest to my farm (Troy, NY and Williamstown, MA) I have to truck my animals to one of two federal USDA processing facilities several hours away. However, if I would like to sell my meat in stores within Vermont, I’m able to use a state processing facility—of which there are many more—only 40 minutes away. Call our neighboring states. If Vermont-inspected meat is healthy in Vermont, why won’t Massachusetts accept it? They should. And vice versa. Help open local markets by cutting the red tape and restoring the region’s natural foodshed.
  3. Call the corporate supermarkets. Vermont is full of cows, and yet the closest grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free meat I can buy at my local supermarket comes from NEW ZEALAND. Only 2% of the food Vermonters eat comes from Vermont. Why? Because it isn’t available where we shop for food. The Agency of Agriculture needs to sit down with Hannaford, PriceChopper, Shaws, ALDI, and the others and figure that out.
  4. Or, if the corporate stores don’t go for #3, put veggie coolers and meat freezers into every state liquor store—make them “Local and Liquor Stores”—there’s already one in nearly every town. Give access to the farmers using the state’s Rewarded Agricultural Practices. The state earns money on liquor, why not healthy, local, regenerative food? Win-win.

Once these Rewarded Agricultural Practices are attached to actual money, and actual customers, and actual markets, and actually makes farming easier for Vermont farmers, The Agency will see success ecologically.

My two cents.


(Note: The photo atop this post is of Lake Champlain.)