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Personal Thoughts on the Upcoming Vermont Regenerative Soils Program Legislation

Today, Senator Brian Campion will introduce to the Vermont Legislature our second attempt at a bill that, if passed, would incentive the responsible stewardship of our state’s ecosystems through the regeneration of our state’s soils.

I’m immensely proud of this bill and will publish a post tomorrow with the nitty-gritty details and text. For now, though, I offer only a few of my thoughts on why this bill is incredibly important for Vermont, for Vermont farmers, and for Vermont’s future generations.

On Vermont Farm Economies

Vermont farmers are the heroes of this state. They’ve been able—under decades of incredible economic and regulatory pressures—to keep Vermont farmland working and open to the benefit of all Vermonters. Unfortunately, Vermont farmers and farmers across the world have been pushed into a system that rewards farmers for rendering their fields infertile with large contracts and government subsidies. Due to the wonderful rolling landscape we all enjoy in Vermont, large-scale mechanized farming isn’t possible, which means competing with large-scale mechanized commodity farms in the midwest isn’t possible. Trying to compete in the commodity markets—when we just don’t have the land to do it—has led to the economic crises facing our Vermont farmers and rural communities today. Luckily, there is another way. Practical, independent, low-input farming that focuses on rebuilding the strength and abundance of Vermont’s natural ecosystem is profitable ecologically and economically. This bill is an attempt to help farmers break their farms free of the chemical addiction that is threatening their land (and our state’s waters, wildlife, and tourist industry) by locking it into a proprietary system of dependence.

On Lake Champlain

Carbon in the soil—in the form of decomposing organic matter, whether manure or crop residue—is what makes soil spongy and adsorbent. Repeated tillage and the frequent spraying of herbicides and pesticides removes carbon from the soil and the “soil sponge” from the land. Therefore, when synthetic fertilizers—in the form of water-soluble nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) pellets—are spread across the depleted land, the remaining rock and sand is unable to adsorb them and much of the nutrient effluent flows into the lake—causing the algal blooms we’re seeing now. This bill is an attempt to incentivize farmers to begin rebuilding the soil sponge above the lake and across the state—keeping water and nutrients uphill and in the soil where they belong.

On Climate Change

Carbon levels in the atmosphere are now above 400ppm. Therefore, if all carbon dioxide emission stopped today, we’d still experience runaway climate change. There are three carbon sinks on Planet Earth: the atmosphere, the oceans, and the soil. Two of those sinks are maxed out, and one is depleted. In order to survive, we must begin removing carbon from the atmosphere and oceans and sequestering it into the soil—where it is incredibly beneficial to all life. Using carbon-sequestering agricultural methods is the only safe and economical way to do this. This bill is an attempt to help Vermont farmers and landowners become responsible stewards of the carbon cycle in the lands they manage while boosting their agricultural revenue.

On Cheap Food

People talk about the “externalized cost” of cheap food—in healthcare dollars or subsidies, and so on. In much of the world, these externalized costs are so far removed from the person buying the cheap food, or the place where it was purchased, that the very real costs float into the land of theory. Vermont, however, is small enough that those costs are not theoretical. Vermont just got a bill for those costs in the form of a $1.4 billion cleanup of Lake Champlain. That is the high price Vermont is paying for cheap milk. We’ve pushed our farmers into a box. We tell them to produce more and work harder and sell for less—when all three requests are impossible. In order to meet that demand, we’ve pushed them to adopt a industrial system of chemical and mechanical production that is harming the biological systems of the state. We shouldn’t, as Vermonters, spend $1.4 billion dollars on cleaning up the lake. We could use that money to help farmers transition to practices that restore ecosystems, build organic matter in the soils, and clean the state’s waters. We clean the lake by helping farmers and landowners to rebuild the soil.

On Hopes for the Bill

At the very least, I hope that this bill continues and strengthens the conversations we’re having in Vermont in regard to what kind of agriculture we’d like to promote in this state: agriculture that pushes families to bankruptcy, pollutes the water, and makes land infertile; or agriculture that creates profits, jobs, and a healthy ecosystem. Any farmer I know would prefer healthy land and healthy profits over degradation and dependence. At best, I hope this bill passes and we’re able to create programs and policies that help farmers and landowners transition to more profitable forms of farming—economically and ecologically.