Lawmakers get a look at challenges facing dairy
I have to say, it is near impossible to get a permit for a major agricultural project in Vermont.
— Ernie Audet
WEYBRIDGE — “Day after day, we get up and go to the barn to make no money,” Roger Scholten told state officials and legislators at his farm in Weybridge on Sept. 18. “I lie awake at night thinking about how I felt 15 years ago, before I made the move to go organic. That’s how I feel now.”
Scholten and his wife Patty operate Scholten Family Farm, a 250-cow organic dairy just over the town line from Middlebury. They’ve been in business for 25 years and have diversified their dairy farm over that period — first by making the transition organic and, since 2008, by making cheese, which they age at the Cellars at Jasper Hill.
Even so, says Scholten, after 25 years of farming in Addison County, he’s losing sleep at night. Quotas, low milk prices, a saturated organic milk market and poor morale weigh heavily on local farmers, he says. “Clean water? We get it. We all want it. We believe in taking care of the land. But there is literally a crisis right now.”
Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, was among the state officials on the tour.
“What would you like policymakers to know, going into this legislative session?” Tebbets interjected.
“When it’s hard to get by, ease up on us,” he said. “When things are good, that’s the time to hit us. We can take it. We want to be part of solving this problem,” he said, referring to water quality concerns. And right now, things are not good.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
On Sept. 18, legislators and regulators from across the state came to Addison County to don their muck boots and get a firsthand look at the issues facing three local dairy farms: Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, Scholten Family Farm in Weybridge and Kayhart Brothers Farm in Addison.
The tours coincided with news that the Agency of Agriculture will be receiving more than $450,000 in federal funds to create a program that provides technical and financial assistance to help dairy farms diversify to adapt to changing markets and regulatory landscapes. Once established, the program will be one of three regionally located innovation hubs across the country, with the others in Wisconsin and Tennessee.
The tours were part one of a two-day event organized by state Agriculture Development Section Chief Laura Ginsberg in the wake of the inaugural Northern Tier Dairy Summit, held at Jay Peak this past May. Legislators also toured three farms in Windsor and Orange counties, with Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman on Sept. 19. The summit brought dairy farmers, dairy officials, industry experts and legislators together to identify which areas of policy most impact the ongoing success and survival of traditional dairy farming in the state.
One of the biggest takeaways, says Ag Agency Policy and Communications Director Scott Waterman, was that Vermont state representatives and senators need to have direct exposure to the farms for which they make laws.
“It was felt by some in the dairy community that legislation was being considered without the knowledge base or experience necessary to formulate informed decisions,” said Waterman, a concern amplified by the state’s heightened focus on reducing pollutants from agricultural runoff.
The goal of this event was to tour a representative spread of farms so legislators could see farm work along with water quality and other conservation projects (both required and voluntary) on the ground and hear directly from the farmers and the local agency staff who implement them.
In Addison County, Sen. Ruth Hardy was in attendance, as were Reps. Diane Lanpher and Matt Birong of Vergennes, Rep. Harvey Smith of New Haven, along with Sen. Brian Collamore and Rep. David Potter of Rutland County. They were joined by representatives from the Agency of Agriculture, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Vermont Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other agricultural stakeholders. The tours were facilitated by Secretary Tebbetts.
The day was spent talking through the details of how farms of various scales operate and the challenges they face in doing so. There was a general consensus that farms simply lack the resources to do the work they are required to do by the state or to take on voluntary conservation projects.
At Blue Spruce Farm, crop specialist Ernie Audet walked legislators through an expensive leachate collection system upgrade that is underway, with the help of George Tucker and civil engineer Tylor Gingras from the NRCS. Permitting and review for the process took two full years and much expense on the part of Blue Spruce Farm. Though aid was available to cover some of the project’s cost, the Audets were responsible for picking up the rest of the tab.
“We as large farms have resources to address these issues,” said Audet. “But I have to say it is near impossible to get a permit for a major agricultural project in Vermont.”
The NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides federal financial assistance to farmers and foresters who implement projects that, among other conservation practices, improve water quality on their land. But farmers may draw at most $450,000 from that resource during the five-year lifespan of a given Farm Bill. The state may match federal funds associated with an EQIP project up to $200,000, provided the combined federal and state funds cover no more than 90 percent of the cost of implementing a given project. Payments for EQIP conservation practices related to organic production are limited to $140,000 per year for the current Farm Bill.
Further, Gingras said, “Clean water projects for big farms take a long time. But once a problem is identified, the legal parameters don’t give you time. We had a proactive partner here, and it still took two years from permitting to implementation. I think it’s fair to say there should be better regulatory infrastructure.”
GETTING UP TO SPEED
Steve Kayhart of Kayhart Brothers Farm in Addison hosted legislators for the afternoon on the 1,200-cow operation he co-owns with his brother Tim. He says that many larger dairies have already implemented what are called Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), state rules that dictate how small, medium and large farms store their manure, manage their livestock and more that were implemented in 2016 to reduce the impact of agriculture on water quality.
“Now those standards need to be put in place on medium and small operations,” Kayhart said.
Prior to 2016 and starting in 1995, Vermont farms were required to comply with Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs), a series of regulations intended to reduce non-point source pollution. Vermont’s AAPs were amended most recently in 2016, following the passage of Act 64 in 2015, to become the existing RAPs. With the passage of the RAPs, which are more extensive than the AAPs, small farms, defined as those with 50 or more dairy cows, were required for the first time to certify their operations with the Agency of Agriculture and submit annual reports about nutrient management and other mitigation practices.
A 2016 economic impact report regarding the RAPs estimated that meeting them will cost the average medium-size farm upwards of $20,000 in one-time investments, and small farms upwards of $12,000, with additional annual expenses. However, one representative from the Agency of Agriculture reported at a separate meeting this week that the state recently oversaw an $800,000 compliance project on a 75-cow Vermont dairy operation.
The passage of the RAPs correlated with a prolonged downturn in milk prices, and three years later, many smaller farms are still getting their infrastructure up to date. A recent survey by the Agency of Agriculture indicated that, of those farms in the Lake Champlain Basin that have been inspected since implementation 67 percent were in compliance with the RAPs.”“Proportionally, it is a much bigger expense for the family that has 75 cows to put in a silage leakage system or work on their manure lagoon,” said Kayhart. “Sure, there is grant money and cost-sharing, but the current system still relies on a significant contribution from the dairyman.”
In the organic sector, the Scholtens lamented that many smaller farms that want to implement water quality projects are burdened by the cost of doing so.
“We have now have milk quotas in the organic sector. We can only get paid to produce so much,” said Scholten, who is a member of the Organic Valley Cooperative and is in the midst of working on an $8,000 to $10,000 nutrient management plan for his farm. “When you can hardly write yourself a check, that’s a lot.”
Scholten asked legislators to be thorough when considering how a potential policy change, even one that seems at first unrelated, could place further financial burdens on Vermont farms. He also called for better regulatory infrastructure to protect Vermont farms’ ability to compete in the national milk market.
“You can dream all you want, but when you’re working seven days a week, you have to make money,” he said. “And when you’re getting starved, you can’t do as good a job at this.”
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