Vt. farmers deal with conservation rigmarole

Vermont is the only state in the country where farmers cannot readily access a program meant to pay them back for restoring habitats around their farms.

It’s called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program — almost always referred to as CREP — and is run by the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Farmers who agree to use some of their land for wildlife habitats, runoff buffer zones or other conservation-focused projects over a 15-year contract get reimbursed.

But the program doesn’t pay for projects that are required by regulations, and because Vermont’s standards for conservation on farms mandate the same practices CREP covers, farmers here have to go through a separate application process with Washington, D.C., to get the funds.

“I am on the ground with farmers, and I see that what farmers need is for this to be simplified and streamlined, and they need access to more consistent, reliable funding,” said Jennifer Byrne, manager of the White River Natural Resource Conservation District, one of several agencies around the state that have to sign off on CREP applications.

Vermont farmers must follow rules from the state called required agricultural practices, which aim to mitigate the impact of farmwork on wildlife, water and more. Even though the program covers more than what’s necessary under Vermont rules, federal legislators didn’t like the idea of paying for practices that are required by the state. So in the 2014 federal farm bill, they made land subject to state conservation regulations ineligible for enrollment in CREP.

Legislators tried to address that in the 2018 farm bill by creating a way for farmers to get approval for the funding, and now there is a special application process for Vermont farmers to enroll their land in the program. Farmers also can automatically re-enroll their land after 15 years and access CREP funding if their land was already enrolled in the program before the legislative change.

Before the change in federal law, farmers had been using CREP in Vermont: The state has more than 2,000 acres enrolled in the program. But in the first few years after the 2018 farm bill, the program was halted until officials were able to figure out the specifics of the application process.

Vermont remains the only state where farmers have to go through this rigmarole to get their land in the program, according to legislators, agricultural officials and farmers.

None of the farm bureau presidents in Addison, Windham or Orleans counties had heard of the program and they found it difficult to find farmers in their networks who had experience with the program. But some agricultural leaders pointed to Ramsey Mellish of Cutting Hill Beef Company in Cornwall, who said he was able to renew the enrollment of his land in CREP and conserve the wetlands on his property.

“If you have area on your property that you’re not using and you can’t use — basically because it’s too wet or too rocky or something — you can enroll and they pay you to do exactly what you’re already doing, which is not using that parcel,” Mellish said.

He said he recommends the conservation program to any farmers who have land they can’t use for production purposes.

However, Ben Gabos — who coordinates CREP for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets — said the process to enroll land in CREP is unnecessarily backlogged.

“We need a specialist, a CREP specialist at the Farm Service Agency, and until we get that, that’s really the backlog,” Gabos said. “The local offices — they don’t have the wherewithal to really deal with the sign-up.”

According to Gabos, the solution would be to hire one person at the local level trained to handle the paperwork, rather than disbursing responsibilities between staff in different agencies who are not properly trained on the software to handle the requests.

Gabos thinks his agency would fund that position, but he said the structure of the Farm Service Agency has hindered that goal.

Eileen Powers, an agricultural program specialist at the Vermont branch of the Farm Service Agency, agrees there is a backlog. Part of the reason why is the convoluted application process for a waiver. Farmers first ask for a recommendation from agency staff in their county; then they have to be approved by a county-level committee and a state committee before going to Washington, D.C., for a final yes or no.

“There’s delays on three or even four levels,” she said, and even once the application gets to the federal level, it typically takes two to six weeks to be approved. Powers said the Covid-19 pandemic also put stress on Farm Services Agency offices and slowed down the process.

But she said a solution will require more than just hiring one extra person at the local level.

The reason the agency has not yet created a position like Gabos mentioned, Powers said, is because rules prevent the agency from sharing data with non-federal employees. Since the position would be with the Vermont agriculture agency, the person who would be hired to fill it would have limited capacity to help process applications, Powers said.

But representatives of state and federal agencies are in negotiations to figure out what a role could look like to speed up applications.

There are other concerns in the bureaucratic maze. Byrne, the White River conservation district manager, said county-level agencies like hers in other states typically are highly involved in forming conservation plans with farmers for CREP projects. But that is lacking in Vermont, Byrne said.

District officials are supposed to sign off on conservation plans included in farmers’ applications, but they are not included in the development of those plans before that point, she said.

There are only two employees at the Agency of Agriculture who can intake farmers’ applications and create conservation plans — Gabos and fellow program coordinator Phillip Wilson — and Byrne said her district has well-trained field staff who, if enlisted, could help accelerate the process. But those staffers haven’t been included by the state, and Byrne doesn’t feel comfortable approving plans her group hasn’t been a part of. She said there hasn’t been any improvement on that front.

Byrne also worries about equity with the program. She said farmers need to be in the know to seek out CREP resources and that there is a lack of transparency and accessibility about the application process.

“A really worthy approach would be to take a critical look at our programs and see what we can consolidate so that we could equitably get money out in a reliable way,” she said, “so farmers could do real financial planning, viability planning and conservation planning and actually make strides to address climate change.”

John Roberts, the executive director of the state Farm Services Agency branch, was a dairy farmer for more than 40 years and had his Cornwall land enrolled in CREP. He said that “all of the players are aware” the language of the 2018 farm bill has caused complications for both government agencies and farmers — something he hopes legislators will address next time around.

“I believe that the (Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets) made this position clear to former congressional representatives that a change in the farm bill … would hopefully remove this sort of extra step in the process,” he said.

He doesn’t think the back-and-forth over waivers provides any benefit to the government.

“And,” he said, “certainly it doesn’t to the applicant.”

Editor’s note: Greta Solsaa is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

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