Farmers confronted by new rules to help clean Lake Champlain

MIDDLEBURY — More than 100 farmers and interested community members packed the American Legion Hall in Middlebury Nov. 19 to hear the Agency of Agriculture explain new farming rules designed to help clean up Lake Champlain.
State officials took pains to describe how the new “Required Agricultural Practices” (also known as RAPs) will expand buffers between fields and waterways, increase the frequency of inspections and directly change some aspects of how farming is done.
One of the biggest changes is how the new rules apply to small farms as well as large ones. The Accepted Agricultural Practices rules, first adopted in 1995 and revised in 2006, set a far higher bar for larger farms.
One farmer asked point blank if the new regulations protecting Lake Champlain were just Vermont being pressured by the federal government because of the EPA’s new phosphorus limits and the lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).
“I think it’s a legitimate question, Why are we doing this?” answered Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross. “And there’s a lot of reasons why we’re doing this. We don’t need to take this on because the federal government is telling us to do it. We need to take it on because it’s good for Vermont.
“The waters of this state are connected in so many intimate ways to the rest of our state,” Ross continued, “to our tourist economy, to our well being. And we need to deal with it for those reasons. And so, yes we’re responding to the (phosphorus limits) from the EPA; yes, we are responding to a lawsuit from CLF; but we are also responding to the call from Vermonters from far and wide to do something about the waters in this state.”
The Draft Required Agricultural Practices rules, which will replace the Accepted Agricultural Practices, were released Oct. 20. The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets will take comment on the draft until Dec. 18, revisions will be released early next year, and rules will go into effect next July 1.
Brian Kemp, president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition and a leader in taking approaches to farming that benefit both farms and the lake, asked how the Agency of Agriculture would help farms implement the new rules with adequate flexibility.
Speaking on behalf of the CVFC Kemp said, “We support the agency in working on this and implementing strategies to help the water quality in the state and fully understand the complications here. We also recognize that all farms need to be included, so it’s great to see the work going towards defining small farms and help implement those.”
In revising the RAPs, Kemp encouraged AAFM to use the science to mandate practices that are “practical and affordable for all of us. Even though there is a lot of money on the table to help implement, we think that it still needs to be on a practical basis and not be extravagant.
“One thing that we feel strongly about is the one-size-fits-all. We do have to figure out a plan for how we can have some flexibility. As you know, one-size-fits-all will not work everywhere.”
The most extensive changes affect what is now defined as Small Farm Operations (SFOs). Previously, the state’s Accepted Agricultural Practices held Large Farm Operations (LFOs) and Medium Farm Operations (MFOs) to more rigorous water quality standards than smaller farms. As Lake Champlain water quality continues to decline, the new RAPs demand that smaller farms get on board with statewide efforts.
In general, a Small Farm Operation is defined as a farm of 10 or more acres that has 20-199 mature dairy cows (or equivalent animals) or that applies manure or compost to its fields. Farms of 4-9 acres must also follow the RAPs, but they don’t need to be certified by the state. Farms smaller than 4 acres do not need to certify or to follow the RAPs.
Small Farm Operations must now certify annually and must follow the RAPs. Among the requirements, SFOs must:
•  Create a formal nutrient management plan.
•  Get inspected every 10 years.
•  Reduce overall erosion to the same current standard as MFOs and LFOs, which cuts in half the acceptable rate of erosion.
•  Follow the same rules as larger farms, in terms of storing and spreading manure, cover cropping, managing erosion, and excluding livestock from waterways.
For medium farms (200-699 mature dairy cows) and large farms (700 or more dairy cows), the changes are less substantial but are significant nonetheless.
Under current Accepted Agricultural Practices, medium and large farms already must keep permits up to date, report annually and create a formal nutrient management plan.
The new Draft RAPs require MFOs to:
•  Have more frequent inspections — every three years instead of every five.
•  Pay a permit fee of $1,500.
The new Draft RAPs require LFOs to continue to be inspected annually and to pay a permit fee of $2,500.
Many of the most important changes affect all farms, regardless of size. All farms — excluding those under four acres and having fewer than four mature dairy cows — must follow new, more restrictive rules for:
•  Manure storing and spreading.
•  Cover cropping.
•  Managing erosion.
•  Excluding livestock from waterways.
Highlights of these new rules include:
•  Wider buffers — now 25 feet, up from 10 feet — between manure spread on fields and adjoining streams and rivers.
•  Wider buffers — now 200 feet, up from 100 feet — between manure stacks and wells, public water supplies, streams and rivers.
•  Greater flexibility for the Secretary of Agriculture to extend the winter ban on manure spreading,
•  A ban on spreading manure on fields that test for greater than 20 parts per million for phosphorus or, in some cases, fields that have a slope of greater than 10 percent and that adjoin a stream or river.
•  Cover crops being required on fields subject to flooding.
•  Livestock being fenced out of rivers and streams except at designated crossing and watering areas.
Additionally, all operators of SFOs, MFOs or LFOs must get at least four hours of training every five years. Those who do custom manure spreading must now be certified and get eight hours of training every five years.
“We’re more aware than ever that anyone who owns land, these rules apply to,” said Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, which milks 500 dairy cows and is a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence.
“Many of us who have had these operating permits for years and years, it’s common language. We understand the science, we’re comfortable with the science, but it’s more about educating all of us who live here even if you don’t have a large farm or a medium farm,” said Audet. Then, looking around the room still filled with farmers animatedly discussing the Draft RAPs, she said, “To get this many farmers to come out and do this is huge. This is huge.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
BLUE SPRUCE FARM’S Marie Audet speaks out about the importance
of farmers being environmental stewards.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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