Forum focus: farms, clean water

MIDDLEBURY — One hundred thirty environmentalists, farmers, businesspeople and policymakers gathered at Middlebury College Monday to explore how Vermont can keep its waters clean while building its agricultural sector.
The Vermont Environmental Consortium’s “Charting a Path to Successful Vermont Farms and Clean Water in Vermont” symposium was the first of its kind hosted by the organization, which was  established in 2000 with the goal of making Vermont a leader in the green economy.
The VEC worked in partnership with the Agency of Agriculture, Department of Environmental Conservation and Agency of Commerce in facilitating the conference.
Presenters cited the many problems facing Vermonters — water quality, phosphorus and nitrogen runoff and a chronic lack of resources — and proposed potential solutions. Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross was critical of the state’s policies over the past decade, and called on the agriculture community to work together in finding solutions to persistent problems.
“The regulations, goals and policy framework that we put together leading up to 2012 have been inadequate,” he said in his welcoming remarks at the conference. “It’s both a public policy and a private action shortfall over decades that we’re trying to now make up for. If we are going to solve and effectively address this problem, we all need to take responsibility for our part and most importantly, work together as a community of folks supporting one another, rather than finger pointing.”
Characteristic of the conversation, Ross also urged participants to recognize the relevance of the issue for all community members.
“This is an issue for Vermont as a whole, and we all need to be working together. It’s not fair to penalize or hold responsible just the farmers, businesspeople or homeowners of 2012 for the whole problem, because it’s those same people plus the public policymakers, the community members, the sewage treatment plant operator and the national policy that’s created this problem,” he said.
David Mears, commissioner of Environmental Conservation, explained that there would be “no quick fix” to the state’s water and agricultural problems, but that technology, proper resource management, and greater cooperation would all promote a better environmental future. Mears also illustrated the economic importance of facilitating greater cohesion.
“The state’s economic future is tied to agriculture, and well-managed farms are critical to this state’s environment,” he said.
VEC President Jill Michaels explained that one of the other goals of the conference was to provide a forum for education. Organizers invited Tom Vogelmann, dean at the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to speak on the future of agriculture in Vermont.
Vogelmann spoke of the increasing concern in the rise in the price of phosphate, a mineral used as a fertilizer in the production of food.
“Discussions are turning from peak oil to peak phosphorous, and there is a belief by many that we are going to peak out on our production in the next couple of decades,” he said.
While Secretary Ross was realistic about the potential to solve the state’s largest agriculture problems, he ended the day on a positive note.
“We’re not going to solve this problem by 2013 and not by 2015. Can we make headway? Absolutely. Do we have to be urgent in our step-by-step process? You bet. We’re going to have to invest time, money, energy and emotion if we’re going to get ahead of it.”
With the success of VEC’s first conference on agriculture and water, organizers are considering facilitating a second round of discussions later on this year.
Editor’s note: Reporter Bronwyn Oatley is a junior at Middlebury College.

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