Ag tour highlights farm efforts to improve lake water quality

ADDISON COUNTY — Legislators, policy makers, representatives from state and federal entities and others got on the bus Monday to see what Addison County farmers are doing to improve water quality in Lake Champlain.
“It’s exciting,” said Tom Berry, Senator Patrick Leahy’s lead advisor on agricultural and natural resource issues. “I’ve been at this work for a while, and the Senator for a lot longer, and I can actually see, visibly, a change on the ground. I’m seeing more of the ground is green than brown now as the corn comes off it, and in the spring I’ve seen the same thing.
“So my takeaway is that we — the big ‘we’ of the farmers, the technical support, etc. — are being successful in understanding how to make conservation work for farmers and providing some of the technical and actual physical tools needed to begin implementing these programs.
Water quality expert Ethan Swift came away similarly impressed.
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds. It’s nice to see the win-win of these practices and programs, fulfilling both the farmers’ concerns and the environmental issues that we’re facing,” Swift said.
Swift, a watershed planning and restoration expert for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, leads development of strategic plans to address phosphorus pollution for both the Otter Creek watershed and what’s known as the McKenzie Brook watershed — the two Addison County watersheds that drain into Lake Champlain.
The Addison County Agricultural Conservation tour was organized by the UVM Extension office in Middlebury, the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition and the Otter Creek Natural Resource Conservation District (OCNRSD).
UVM EXTENSION AGRONOMY Outreach Professional Kirsten Workman discusses cover crops on the Foster Farm in Middlebury during a bus tour of Addison County farms for government officials and farmers Monday.
Tour organizers wanted to provide a first-hand experience of what’s happening on farms throughout Addison County to accomplish agriculture’s part in cleaning up Lake Champlain.
“There’s nothing like getting first-hand experience and hearing from the farmers themselves as to what’s working and what’s not. It’s really been very eye opening to actually see the effectiveness of some of these different types of conservation work that farmers are engaged in now. And it’s great to see it work for them — to see that some of these practices actually help with the economics of things,” said Swift.
Along with Berry and Swift, the 30 or so participants included representatives from the Farm Service Agency, the state-level office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Republican legislators Harvey Smith and Fred Baser, seed dealers, ordinary folk and farmers, and a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The tour took participants on a loop of some 67 miles throughout the county.
Starting from the OCNRCD’s offices in Middlebury, the tour first snaked through Cornwall and Whiting to the Lucas Cattle Company in Orwell. There farmer Josh Lucas, 32, explained the measures he’s taken to make his grass-fed beef operation more profitable while reducing erosion into the Lemon Fair River, which runs through his 185 acres in Orwell (Lucas operates an additional 265 acres in Benson).
Lucas uses what’s known as management-intensive grazing and moves his cattle about every 24 hours to a different spot. He’s improved his watering systems, upgraded a stream crossing and put in graveled animal trails in a few well-chosen spots to reduce erosion and get the most benefit out of each acre. A part of his land directly along the Lemon Fair is excluded from production entirely and maintained through an NRCS habitat restoration program.
From Lucas Cattle Company, the bus moved on to the Orr Family Farm in Orwell. There 23-year-old Rachel Orr, who manages the farm alongside her parents, Bill and Elizabeth Orr, held up a hefty three-inch binder and another set of documents and described her experiences putting together a nutrient management plan (part of the state’s new Required Agricultural Practices). The entire group then crossed Route 22A and walked through a field where the Orr’s have begun to work with different cover crops and no-till and reduced-till approaches to corn and cover crop planting to prevent soil erosion into the lake.
UVM’s Severy pointed out that the new approaches the Orrs used this past year also earned them an additional $200 per acre compared to their previous methods.
Reduced tillage methods (including no till and broadcasting) and cover cropping are both important to preventing the kinds of soil erosion that lead to phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain.
During a stop at the Bridport Community Hall for lunch, the OCNRCD awarded its Conservation Farmer of the Year awards to Josh Lucas of Lucas Cattle Company and to Will Madison of Madison Family Farm of Shoreham.
Will Madison, 23, who works Madison farm along with parents George and Joann Madison, explained how his family  reduced manure runoff on their dairy.
“We put up a new barn,” said Madison. “Our cows used to be up on a side hill during the winter… so obviously runoff from everything was going into the ditches. So we put up a new barn to take care of that and everything goes into the pit now.”
Participants then drove along the lake on their way north to the Vorsteveld Farm in Panton for a demonstration of custom manure application, and then visited the Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury, where Carter talked about UVM Extensions programs to benefit both the lake and farmers.
Along the way, Carter and other UVM specialists pointed out new acreage in cover crops and other conservation improvements that could be seen right out the sides of the bus. And various stakeholders from the various entities and agencies talked about the kinds of support — especially technical and financial assistance — they provide to farmers.
In a follow-up interview with the Independent Berry commented on the importance of these partnerships and on what’s at stake.
“There’s been the phrase ‘all in’ and everybody who has an impact on the landscape has responsibilities to manage that impact in a way that protects Lake Champlain,” said Berry. “Every part of the landscape plays a role in contributing to Lake Champlain’s cleanup.
“What’s at stake for the farmers,” Berry continued, “is having the tools to do that in a way that keeps their farms and their businesses viable. I think we saw a lot of examples of that on Monday, finding ways of working with partners to do it that actually enhance the viability of their agricultural operations while also enhancing the impact of the agricultural landscape on Lake Champlain.”
On Monday, young Will Madison had said very much the same thing, talking about the partnerships that helped his family contain manure and runoff and protect the lake.
“It means a lot. Everybody’s in for making things better.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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