Some are upset that small farms get break in clean water rules

ADDISON COUNTY — As the latest revision of proposed farming practice rules loosens requirements on an estimated 1,000 Vermont farms, some in the agriculture community are wondering what happened to the rallying cry “All in!” on Lake Champlain cleanup.
“We went into this water quality understanding that we (farmers) own 40 percent of the problem. And we are in, and we are working,” said Marie Audet of Bridport’s Blue Spruce Farm at a recent luncheon with county legislators.
But, she added, “The same rules have to apply across the board if we’re going to achieve the results that we need to achieve.”
After the Legislature approved the Vermont Clean Water Act last spring, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets last fall issued the first draft of the Required Agricultural Practices, or RAPs, which directly change some aspects of how farming is done in order to improve water quality. All farms of at least four acres must follow the RAPs, but the way the rules are enforced for small farms changed from the first draft RAPs to the second draft, which was released in late February.
The first draft of the RAPs said that small farm operations, referred to as SFOs, with at least 20 mature dairy cows (or equivalent livestock) must go through a certification process; but the second draft changed the definition of a small farm to one with at least 50 cows.
In its tour around the state with draft one, the agency received more comments on the SFO threshold than on any other aspect of the draft, according to the Agency of Agriculture’s Ryan Patch.
Patch, the agency’s Senior Ag Development Coordinator, defended the change in the definition of an SFO, saying that the revised 50-cow threshold would still account for 94 percent of all dairy cows and about three-quarters of all farm animals in the state.
“Based on our estimates … three-quarters of all manure generated in the state and 94 percent of all dairy cows would be under a permit or certification program,” he said. “As a first swipe at small farm certification we thought that this would still be around 1,500 farms and that they represented a size where the additional planning requirements required for them under certification — the nutrient management plan, the water quality training, the inspections — best fit that (slightly larger) size farm and that’s why the threshold was raised.”
Like their larger counterparts, SFOs will be required to self-certify annually, create a formal nutrient management plan, be inspected every seven years (made more frequent since the every 10 years rule in draft one), and have farmers receive four hours of training in water-quality related best practices every five years.
An SFO, as defined in the current draft of the RAPs, is 10 or more acres used for farming that has one of the following: 50-199 cows (or 75 beef cattle or 6,250 laying hens, etc., with numbers spelled out for everything from emus to elk) or one that grows cops for animal feed or one that grows produce and has annual sales of $25,000. An MFO has 200-699 cows (or the equivalent). An LFO has 700 or more cows (or the equivalent).
“If you have 49 cows you don’t have to file a letter certifying your interest in being in compliance,” said farmer and state Rep. Harvey Smith. “Below that they still have to follow the RAPs, but the agency has to go out and find them.
“And that’s what has a lot of the farm community upset because when we were talking about this we were saying ‘OK, it’s all in.’”
Smith, a New Haven Republican, explained how the certification and permitting process works from a farmer’s point of view:
“What happens is the large farm permitting process if you reach a certain number you have to be certified by the Agency of Agriculture that you’re in compliance. And you basically have to meet all the requirements and jump through all the hoops. When you get down to the medium-size farm, it’s similar to that except that you certify that you’re going to work towards compliance. They accept that letter and then over a period of years you can become in compliance.”
Smith continued, “And that’s the same process they’re going to use for the smaller farms. So what you do is you send a letter to the Agency of Agriculture to say that it’s your intent to comply with these rules. Then somebody will come out to the farm and walk the farm with you and do an inventory. And they’ll come up with a plan for the next step you need to do in order to meet that compliance.”
Agronomy Specialist Jeff Carter of the UVM Extension’s office in Middlebury agrees with Patch that these numbers would still represent a great step forward for Lake Champlain. Carter said that compared to the 94 percent of all dairy cows captured by the 50-cow threshold, the draft one 20-cow threshold captured closer to 98 percent. And he and his agency are actively engaged in helping to bring about the kinds of changes in farming practice that are mandated by the RAPs.
“I think this goes a long way towards meeting the goals that we’re trying to reach, which is more than encourage farmers to stop polluting the water,” said Carter.
Nevertheless, for Carter a major problem with the higher animal numbers for SFO certification is that it pits farmer against farmer and divides farmers into conflicting constituencies. For Carter, these weaknesses in the RAPs also have to do with the ways the new rules apply differently to vegetable production than to animal feed, or apply differently, say, to manure collected and spread on a field than to the manure that pastured animals leave wherever they walk.
“The problem is that there’s a division between agricultural sectors when one has to do it and the other doesn’t have to do it,” said Carter. “Again it’s the old divide and conquer routine. So now you’re continuing to pit large farms against small farms, organic against nonorganic, grazing against manure spreading.”
“Listen,” Carter emphasized, “when we started supporting this a long time ago it was ‘everybody in.’ We floated ideas like everybody who owns land should pay a little bit. Then it came back to ‘Oh, the farmers will pay,’ but then it came down to ‘No, only the large farmers are going to pay.’ So once again large farmers are paying the bill for small farmers.”
Alongside the question of overall fairness, Smith too raised the all-important question of water quality itself.
“If we want to meet the water quality standards that the EPA has set, everybody in the watershed has to work towards it,” said Smith. “So the farmers that have been under heavy regulation that were supporting the Clean Water Act  … wanted to make sure that everybody else had to follow the same rules that they did. And that’s fair.”
Smith, whose own farm would fall under the new SFO guidelines, said that like many Vermont farmers he’s already been following many of the new RAPs.
“Voluntarily, I’ve had a nutrient management plan for seven, 10 years, something like that,” he said.
Since releasing the draft two RAPs in late February, the agency has met with more than two dozen stakeholder groups and is continuing to listen as it applies round two comments to its next revision.
“We learned through that process that we didn’t get the second draft completely right,” Patch said.
The Agency of Agriculture expects to file draft three of its proposed RAPs by April 25. That timeline would put the RAPs on track for another round of public comments beginning in June.
The RAPs were originally supposed to take effect July 1, but Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross has asked to move that date to Sept. 15.
Patch said the agency is taking another look at draft two, in light of all of its stakeholder meetings, including the SFO livestock thresholds.
“We’ve heard those comments, and we’re taking a close look at the certification threshold for livestock numbers and we’re taking another look at it to indeed see if we’re in the right place with this threshold,” said Patch.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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