Farmer pollution regulations
ADDISON COUNTY — Farmers saw milk prices plummet in 2016 at the same time as they were being required to adopt new practices, mandated by Vermont’s Clean Water Act.
Milk prices plunged in 2016 and stayed around the $15 per hundredweight range — in sharp contrast to a high of $23 or more in 2014. Yet the federal Margin Protection Program, designed to provide insurance for farmers when the cost of milk falls below the cost of production, proved ineffectual in the Green Mountain State. Local farmers described the MPP, part of the 2014 Farm Bill, as “strictly an expense … The program just hasn’t worked out the way we thought it would.”
The MPP is geared towards Midwest commodity prices and farmers in Vermont have found that it doesn’t actually address the cost of producing milk in the Northeast.
As they were trying to make ends meet given the price of milk, farmers around the state began to feel the effects of the new “Required Agricultural Practices,” or RAPs, which were designed to reduce manure-laden, phosphorous-rich run off from dairy operations. Over the course of 2016, the Agency of Agriculture held hearings, took comments from farmers and met with stakeholders, as it revised the draft rules. The RAPs officially took effect in December 2016. They require farms to follow new, more restrictive rules for:
• storing and spreading manure.
• planting cover crops.
• managing erosion.
• excluding livestock from waterways.
One bone of contention amongst farmers themselves was which aspects of the rules should apply to which farms.
Many of the RAPs’ biggest changes affected small farms, which were being required to meet many of the same standards previously applied only to so-called Large Farm Operations and Medium Farm Operations.
The initial draft of the RAPs defined a small farm operation (SFO) as one with 20 or more dairy cows (or the equivalent). But outcry from small farmers changed the cutoff point to 50 or more dairy cows.
“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 UVM Extension’s Jeff Carter. “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.”
Nonetheless, the 50-cow threshold for SFOs captures 94 percent of the state’s dairy cows and 76 percent of all live weight.
Farmers also wondered to what extent other sectors were being tasked with their fair share of Lake Champlain cleanup.
“The new water regs are very good water regs,” said Addison farmer Rob Hunt in October. “I think they are things that responsible farmers have been doing before they were implemented. But the negative is it’s only for farmers. Everybody else can pollute.”
Nevertheless, Addison County farmers provided strong leadership toward Lake Champlain cleanup.
A September tour of the county, organized by the Middlebury UVM Extension and NRCS offices, Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition and the Otter Creek Natural Resource Conservation District highlighted many of these ongoing changes.
“It’s exciting,” said Tom Berry, Sen. 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. So my takeaway is that we … are being successful in understanding how to make conservation work for farmers and providing some of the tools needed to begin implementing these programs.”