Farmers form group to educate peers on water quality issues

ADDISON COUNTY — Farmers in the Champlain Valley are forming a coalition to address water pollution in the Lake Champlain Basin. After a year of planning, the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition incorporated earlier this year as a nonprofit organization.
“It’s a fairly simple goal,” said coalition president John Roberts, a recently retired Cornwall dairy farmer, now working with UVM Extension in Middlebury. “Promote environmentally sound agricultural methods that will help mitigate water quality problems, and do it from a farmer point of view.”
Farmers in the Lake Champlain Basin have come under fire in recent years for lake pollution, particularly last summer, when phosphorous runoff caused a remarkable algae bloom that prompted the closure some public beaches for a week.
Roberts said the vast majority of farmers are well aware of the environmental impacts of some farm practices, but in a cash-strapped and labor- and time-intensive business, they are not always able to adopt environmentally sound practices — or to find the time to research new and improved methods for doing their work.
That’s where the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition comes in.
“We hope to steadily reach out to farmers,” said Roberts. “There are plenty of people out there who don’t understand farming and who see us as a major polluting factor, and some of them are very vociferous. We need to be able to show that farmers are adults and recognize our responsibility, and that we are willing to learn and try new methods.”
The coalition’s stated mission is to provide a unified voice for farms who aim to be proactive about protecting water quality, to advance the economic resiliency of farms while shifting to a culture of environmentally responsible farm practices, to acquire and share educational resources and equipment, and to facilitate communication between farmers, agencies and the public to improve water quality.
The coalition members plan to meet annually to elect a board of directors and vote on any other important issues that arise, according Roberts. The board of directors will meet monthly to conduct business, accept membership applications, and keep current on emerging agriculture and water quality issues. The coalition also hopes to facilitate educational opportunities for members, on and off of each other’s farms.
The current Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition board of directors includes farmers Roberts, Eric Clifford of Clifford Farm in Starksboro, David Conant of Conant’s River Farm in Richmond, Peter James of Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge, and Ernest Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, among others.
Despite the prominent farms that have already signed on, Roberts said the group’s membership is “in its growth phase” — they still hope to attract many more members.
“But it’s a tricky time of year to get farmers interested in anything other than how long they can stay out in the fields,” Roberts admitted with a laugh.
The group plans to organize educational field trips and site visits among its members throughout the summer. Membership applications are available at the group’s website, www.champlainvalleyfarmercoalition.com. 

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