Field Day is all about soil conservation

PANTON — Scores of farmers came to Vorsteveld Farm in Panton Friday to learn about conservation practices and test equipment at a soil health “field day” sponsored by the University of Vermont Extension’s Middlebury office.
Around 80 farmers from Addison and southern Chittenden counties came to the event, which ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a humid Indian summer day.
UVM Extension agronomist Jeff Carter said he was impressed by the turnout. He said hosting workshops in a farm setting is ideal.
“If you set farmers in a classroom session, it’s just not as successful as if you put them outside, where peers are talking to each other,” Carter said. “This builds a better sense of community.”
At the field day, agriculture professionals presented workshops on no-till farming and planting cover crops, methods that provide a litany of benefits to planters. In addition to UVM Extension staff, farmers heard from Pennsylvania agronomist Joel Meyers.
Thomas Villars, a soil resource specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in White River Junction, said cover cropping and no-till farming aren’t directly related, but rather complement each other.
“They’re both what we would consider healthy practices,” Villars said. “They’re different pieces for different times of the year.
Cover crops are planted in the late summer or fall and provide a multitude of benefits, including decreasing runoff, making soil more porous, and injecting soil with nutrients. UVM agronomists are trying to figure out what species work best — winter rye is an early favorite, because it can survive harsh New England winters.
No-till farming is employed in the spring, and is beneficial because it minimizes soil disturbance, which contributes to agricultural runoff.
“The benefits to that are the natural soil structure is intact,” Villars said. “You don’t have to drive over the field two or three times to plant, which saves fuel and labor.”
Villars said that no-till planting also gives farmers more leeway, since it is a quicker method.
“You just need one perfect patch of weather in the spring instead of two or three,” Villars said.
Gerard Vorsteveld said he was glad to host the field day on his family’s land as a way to learn how his dairy could benefit from conservation-minded agricultural practices.
“You hear about it on this place and that place, but I want to see what it does on my dairy farm,” Vorsteveld said. “I can see it hands on.”
Vorsteveld added that his farm has already incorporated many of the practices discussed at the field day.
Carter said farmers, shrewd by nature, are reluctant to adopt a new practice unless they know it can be successful.
“I think people need to see that with their neighbors and then have a frank discussion about whether it’s going to work or not,” Carter said. “There are certain farmers who try new practices, and then other farmers wait back and make sure it’s going to work before they do it.”
Carter said that farmers have gradually shifted toward no-till planting and cover crops in the last three decades, driven by cost savings and also environmental concerns.
“The last couple years we’ve seen a change for us as agronomists,” Carter said, explaining the increasing popularity of these practices. “No-till and cover crops is a system that really is one of the best ways to reduce phosphorous going into Lake Champlain.”
Carter added that these are only a couple of the methods that farmers can employ to reduce their environmental footprint. The increased focus on them, he said, is largely due to funding that has become available from state, federal and private sources.
“You’re only seeing the emphasis now because we’ve only in the last few years gotten the funding to employ additional agronomy people to provide outreach to farmers,” Carter said.
A huge boost for sustainable farming practices came just last week, when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, during a visit to Vermont, announced $45 million in federal funds to protect and conserve the Lake Champlain watershed.
Carter praised Sen. Patrick Leahy and the rest of Vermont’s Congressional delegation for securing the funds.
“It’s a shot in the arm and you know it,” Carter said. “They’ve already spent a million dollars between yesterday and today into cover crops.”
More funding from a plethora of public and private sources has enabled Carter to expand his staff in Middlebury.
“Five years ago I was here by myself. I couldn’t have pulled this off,” Carter said. “I have a team of seven people in Middlebury that wasn’t in place then.”
Carter also lauded the work of the Champlain Valley Farmer coalition, which he says has been instrumental in representing farmers’ interests.
“I think farmers need to have a calm and unified voice to speak to the public, the Legislature and to other farmers about what it is that we’re doing, and how we can be a solution to the cleanup on Lake Champlain as a unified group,” Carter said.
Carter is a board member of the organization, which was founded in 2013.
He said he is thankful that UVM Extension and other agricultural organizations have more resources than ever to sponsor field days like this one in Panton.
“I think we’re pretty lucky to do outreach and put on programs like this,” Carter said.

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