Community Forum: Don’t just blame farmers for water pollution

This week’s writer is Emerson Lynn, editor of the St. Albans Messenger
Franklin County has long held the distinction of producing more milk than any other county in Vermont, or New England. Dairy farmers have been to Franklin County what the Red Sox are to Boston.
There are easier professions, which explains why the average age of a dairy farmer includes a lot of gray hair, aching backs and not a lot of extended vacations.
And, increasingly, not a lot of sympathy.
Particularly when it comes to a polluted Lake Champlain.
Roughly 40 percent of the phosphorus in Lake Champlain comes from the runoff from ag lands. In Missisquoi Bay, ag runoff constitutes over 70 percent of the phosphorus.
Critics’ voices are on the rise; they are tired of excuses, and don’t believe in voluntary compliance. They want the necessary work to be done now.
At the head of that list is the Conservation Law Foundation, which recently petitioned the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to enforce the agency’s regulations governing runoff.
No excuses.
The agency, under Chuck Ross’ leadership, is trying to figure out how to respond. He’s also trying to determine just how much flexibility the agency has in responding to CLF’s insistence.
As with manure being spread on a spring field, there is ample blame to spread as to why we are where we are.
There are farmers who, unwittingly or not, contribute to the problem by refusing to take even the most rudimentary steps to curb the pollution.
There are groups such as the CLF who tend to use baseball bats to get their way when a carrot would be a smarter approach.
And there is the state itself, which pays lip service to the need, but not much more.
But the real culprit is more political than we’d like to admit. The real problem is that we’re just now getting serious about the need for clean water. If it were otherwise, we’d be much further along than we are.
Think about it. As a state, we’re relatively passionate about the need for renewable energy. We pay a premium for solar, wind, geothermal, etc. We have the same sort of passion for energy efficiency. Collectively, the small fee we pay on each month’s utility bill amounts to millions of dollars. We assess a state tax on tobacco products and a state tax on gasoline — both for public purposes.
And we pay what to ensure that our water is clean?
It’s a challenge because not all Vermonters feel the same about Lake Champlain. Those counties next to the lake — Franklin, Chittenden and Addison — care more than do those in the state’s southern tier. Asking all Vermonters to contribute runs into political opposition, which is why the tendency is to heap all the responsibility on the farmers — financial and otherwise — and then walk away.
It doesn’t work. The farmers have neither the resources nor the expertise to do all that is necessary. And it’s a cop-out.
The weakness of the CLF approach is that it doesn’t take into account the differences that exist from farm to farm. Not that the CLF cares much; its purpose is to force behavior, not encourage it.
As everyone is well aware, Lake Champlain will not revert to its pristine state anytime soon. It will take time. A lot of it. There are no easy answers.
But there are easier and more effective ways than the iron fist being proposed by the CLF.
Kent Henderson, who is chair of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, painted a clear picture for those willing to listen. He said the agency would need to spend some money to hire enough people to monitor the farms and to offer their expertise.
As he said, the state will need to visit each farm and then work with the farm to find the most appropriate response.
This isn’t beyond our ability. Maps exist that identify each farm and its “contribution levels” to the lake’s circumstance. Resources should be devoted in direct proportion to the problem that exists. We should work our way backward until the last dollars are used for those who contribute the least. If the objective is to reduce the amount of phosphorus being dumped into the lake, then it only makes sense to first target those who contribute the most.
Here’s how not to do it: Send out letters to each farmer asking each to do the same thing. No follow-up. No individual attention. No distinction between farms or circumstances.
The better approach? All of us finally saying that clean water carries with it the same public responsibility as clean energy or better education, or improved health.
We can’t place the yoke of this responsibility on our farmers and expect success. It won’t happen. It’s a pull that demands all our participation.
If we are going to begin with our farmers, then let’s make sure it works, and that means helping them. All of us.
— Emerson Lynn

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