Farmers discuss water quality, soil health

MIDDLEBURY — What is the biggest threat to farming in Addison County? Jon Turner, a veteran farmer who runs Wild Roots Farm with his family in Bristol, says it’s the conversations we’re not having.
That’s why he and Molly Anderson, Middlebury College professor of Food Studies, organized a Nov. 9 forum to give farmers a microphone to describe what they do and why they do it.
A panel of three farmers discussed the challenges of caring for the land and water while making a living in agriculture in Addison County.
Farming expert Joshua Faulkner set the stage for the discussion telling the audience of about 60 at the college’s Twilight Hall that Addison County’s future is complex in the face of climate change, and people should know what farmers are doing to reduce pollution and improve the environment.
“It’s not farming as usual,” said Faulkner, the Farming and Climate Change Coordinator at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Faulkner said 38 percent of Vermont’s contribution of phosphorous to Lake Champlain is from agriculture. While warming is extending the growing season, higher temperatures will increase pressure on livestock producers to keep their animals safe.
Kirsten Workman, crop advisor for UVM Extension’s Champlain Valley Crop, Soil and Pasture Team, said the bulk of Addison County’s roughly 800 farms are between 10 and 160 acres in size and earn an average of $52,200 in annual net income. She characterized this as a “modest” return.
The county produces about a third of the state’s corn silage and is home to 30,000 milk cows. The majority of farms grow forage crops for hay or animal feed.
When it comes to improving water quality and soil health, Workman said that “all farms have a role to play.” No-till and cover cropping, buffering, and better grazing management can all reduce erosion, help soil retain water and drain properly, build soil health and, usually, create economic benefits for farmers as well.
“I could go on and on about practices,” she said, “but really, the other ‘how’ of how we do this is with people — and we have some awesome people.”
The panel featured Turner, George Foster and Joe Severy. Foster is a principal of Foster Brothers Farm, a conventional dairy business in Middlebury that also sells its manure regionally under a subsidiary, Vermont Natural Ag Products. Severy obtained organic certification for his Cornwall farm 10 years ago and is training his son to take over the business. Professor Anderson moderated the conversation.
Foster’s conventional farm has a nutrient management plan and practices crop rotation. It has used no-till methods for going on six years, and has found benefits.
“We were told when we started no-till that you can’t do it on Addison County clay,” he said. “Well, what we found is that you can’t start on Addison County clay that looks like a parking lot. You need to start when it’s had a chance to rejuvenate a little bit, and then you stop beating it up by tillage, and it works.”
Severy, who operates Waters Run Farm, said the move to organic dairy was the right one for him, even if had to learn some things to get there.
“We’re making a great product, I have a consumer that respects what I do, and it’s been financially feasible for my farm to go that direction,” he said.
Severy’s cows graze for 45 percent of the year, and the feed that his cows eat during the cold months is grown on the farm.
While organic has worked for Severy, it has its limits. The organic cooperative that he is a part of limits the amount of milk he can produce. If he sells more than his quota, his price falls.
“I don’t have the opportunity right now to let the cows produce all the milk they would like,” Severy said.
Flooded organic markets pose a threat to the industry.
“The biggest challenge is always going to be farm profitability,” he warned. “Opportunities for young people to get in and get established are difficult.”
Turner’s farm is an educational homestead. About a third of his 10 acres is cultivated. He prides himself on his labor-intensive commitment to practices that deliver incredible soil health benefits. With these methods, he says, “I know that I’m getting a nutrient-dense yield that’s diverse, resilient to the elements and the climate that is changing.”
Producing just for his family and small markets, it’s worth the effort, but he realizes it’s not feasible for everyone.
“I do believe this model is applicable to larger scales, it just has to be looked at differently,” he said.
The conversation turned to regenerative agriculture, which encompasses farming methods that build soil and traps carbon in it, thus combatting global climate change.
Turner wants to make regenerative methods from permaculture, agroforestry and other practices a part of the conversation across farms of all types and sizes.
Workman of UVM Extension warned the audience that there are farms that work hard to sequester carbon and improve water and soil quality that may not qualify as certified organic. She urged the room to “de-couple” the concepts of regenerative and organic, understanding that organics are in the regenerative category, but farms don’t have to be certified organic to use regenerative practices.
Foster spoke to the difficulties of operating a farm at scale and asserted that while chemicals “may harm some (crops),” cover cropping and no-till are much more important for reducing environmental impact. Besides that, there is a lot of pressure to produce enough to pay the bills.
“With the windows of opportunity given to us in New England,” he said, “farmers need to have a variety of applications to be able to meet production. ”
While Foster Brothers may not be certified organic, he told the panel, “I believe we’re very regenerative.”
Severy added that “cover cropping is exploding” and while their farms may sound different, “they are doing similar things” to improve water and soil health.
“We care very much about the land we are on,” Foster added. “We are always learning and we are always changing.”
The panel and some UVM Extension staff in the audience noted the work of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, a group that started five years ago and meets every month to talk about how farmers, mainly from the conventional dairy industry, can improve their environmental practices along with the efficiency and profitability of their businesses.
The group emphasized that dialogue and understanding will be crucial moving forward, and invited legislators and citizens to talk to them.
Jon Turner hopes for more discussion.
“This is the community we are in, and if we can’t talk about these difficult things, then that’s an issue,” he said.
“If you have a question for a farmer, go ask them,” Severy said.
Foster urged people to “try to get your information from a farmer, not from a movie star, on what works.”

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