Farmers want credit for their work keeping land and air clean

MONTPELIER — A broad-based coalition of Vermont farmers headed to Montpelier Friday to propose a pilot project that could transform the state’s accounting system for agriculture.
Developed by the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition of Addison and Rutland counties, the Franklin-Grand Isle Farmer’s Watershed Alliance and the Connecticut River Watershed Farmers Alliance, the project concept is simple:
Pay farmers to produce healthy soil, clean water and a sustainable working landscape.
“With emerging technology to provide real-time feedback and quantify the results of our conservation approaches on an individual farm basis and as an industry across Vermont, we believe that we can change the narrative and provide farmers with a new paradigm in which to operate,” wrote the group in a letter they presented to legislators at a hearing on Friday.
“In this paradigm, farmers would be compensated for the social and environmental benefits that our responsible land stewardship provides our communities and watersheds, not just for the (food and fiber products) we currently are paid to produce.”
The pilot project, with an estimated $10 million price tag, would install technology on six “host” farms to monitor energy, water and biomass usage and production, and use 3-D soil mapping and remote sensing technology to measure “whole landscape function” and farmer-produced watershed “ecosystem services.”
This would create data upon which experts could calculate how much to pay farmers for the public good they do through stewardship of the land and water.
While the language in the proposal is pretty highfalutin, the concepts are old school.
The ecosystem services to be measured would include:
•  Biomass production (planting crops, grass and pasture, forests).
•  Groundwater recharge and increased stream base flows from quantified water infiltration (preserving open land to compensate for runoff from developed properties).
•  Water purification (keeping soil healthy so water that goes through it cleansed).
•  Soil carbon increase (reducing climate change by keeping carbon from getting into the atmosphere).
•  Reductions in flooding, drought, excess nutrients, wildfires and infrastructure damage (managing land so it can handle floods).
Phase two of the farmers’ proposed pilot project would “create and implement a decision support system” that would help land managers “make real-time conservation decisions related to grazing, cropping and soil regeneration.”
Finally, the coalition hopes to use the project to develop a funding model to pay farmers a fair value for providing ecosystem services.
Their audience Friday included four House and Senate committees charged with agricultural and environmental oversight, including Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife; and Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbets stood up at the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition annual dinner in Middlebury this past Wednesday evening and encouraged farmers to attend Friday’s legislative hearing.
“I think this is a significant hearing,” he told them. “I know it’s heavy lifting: You’ve got to go up there, weave your way around, engage lawmakers. But they listen to you more than they’ll probably listen to me on a lot of issues, and that’s because you live it and work it every day.”
Tebbets closed his address with simple advice:
“Don’t let anyone tell you that your work is not meaningful.”
He didn’t specify who might suggest that food production and land management aren’t meaningful, but for farmers who feel unfairly accused of committing various environmental crimes — especially water pollution — there was nothing ambiguous about the secretary’s words.
The coalition echoed his sentiment in their draft letter to legislators:
“We have been pointed to as the problem for so long that citizens and lawmakers alike have neglected to realize that we may be the biggest potential solution to climate change, extreme weather events, water quality, food production and more.”
They hope the data produced by their pilot project will provide a more accurate picture of what’s really going on between agriculture and the environment, a picture they feel has all too often been skewed by one element: phosphorus.
A template for their pursuit was established last spring by UVM agronomist and soils specialist Heather Darby, who spent three weeks in the northwest corner of the state collecting data from 1,400 acres of farmland in the Lake Carmi watershed. The state has been under a federal order since 2008 to reduce the levels of phosphorus in the lake, which it was widely assumed to have been the fault of nearby agriculture.
In April Darby told lawmakers those assumptions were unfounded. Federal data, she said, was outdated. The phosphorus in the soil she studied almost never reached a level that would be considered “high.”
Many farmers around the state felt vindicated by Darby’s testimony, but according to a VTDigger.org report, her reception in some quarters of the Statehouse was a bit cooler.
“She’s basically had a ‘good-news’ story, but meanwhile the lake is still in intolerably bad condition for anyone who lives there,” Sen. Bray told Digger. “Overall we still have declining water quality across the state, and that is not something any Vermonter should have to put up with.”
Meanwhile, as various stakeholders attempt to reach a consensus about the causes of — and solutions for — lake pollution, farmers are growing anxious about the future of their industry in Vermont.
“We anticipate that a combination of unfortunate market forces and a generational transfer of assets will transform our agricultural sector in the next decade, in many ways that Vermonters will not like,” wrote the authors of “A 2018 Exploration of the Future of Vermont Agriculture,” a white paper released in October by UVM Extension and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.
“We believe the response should not be tied to any particular agricultural product, but should instead embrace the necessity of conserving agricultural resources alongside the reality that Vermont agriculture may look different in the future than it does now,” they continued. “The question we wish to examine further is which combination of activities and investments are best suited to that purpose.”
Such an examination will require more accurate and more comprehensive information than is currently available.
The farmers who went to the Statehouse Friday went with a plan to secure that information. And they arrived with a question:
“Will you join us as we work to make this vision a reality?”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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