Op-Ed: Quality in water and farming

As you go about your day, it’s likely you pass a farm – or two or more – along the way. Hidden in hamlets and stretched out in the valleys, Vermont’s farms are part of our daily lives.

And although farmers have worked the land for over a century, there may be something unexpected, yet rooted in Vermont, happening behind the scenes.

Something innovative. Something progressive. Something that’s making a difference, over time, in our land, waterways, farms, and in our communities.

Vermont farmers, along with many others in our state, are working for water quality.

A closer look at Vermont farms shows how cutting-edge technology is increasingly becoming the new norm. From state-of-the art waste management systems to cover crops that keep agricultural fields growing biomass year-round preventing soil from eroding, Vermont agriculture is evolving once again. New generations, along with legacy farmers, are actively making improvements on their farms and they are networked for change. In 2017, 3,137 farmers, partners, and members of the public took in 5,011 hours of education at 93 water quality events. Last year, 70 Vermonters received advanced certification in manure application. It’s progress.

And that’s just the beginning. In 2017, the State invested $17 million in related water quality projects across all sectors. As part of this investment, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture devoted $5.2 million in technical and financial assistance, engagement and outreach, rules and regulation, and inspection and enforcement – it’s the biggest water quality investment in the history of Vermont.

The Agency of Agriculture’s work over the past year includes $1.1 million in grants for on-farm projects such as fencing, manure storage, and barnyards, $1.7 million in Clean Water Initiative grants to partners for education, implementation, and phosphorus reduction alternatives beyond traditional conservation practices. There are 31 people at the Agency of Agriculture’s water quality division focused on ensuring the regulations are achieved, designing conservation practices, and offering education and technical assistance to help farms make the necessary changes for water quality. Grants and the technical support offered by the agency are tools for farmers who are motivated for change and all grants require money from the farmer.

In addition, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), inspects farms and jointly enforces water quality regulations. In 2017, Agency of Agriculture investigators performed 392 inspections including investigating 150 complaints – 100 percent of those received. Farmers who knowingly do not comply with laws face action: in 2017 farmers received 93 enforcement actions from the agency, a 145 percent increase over 2016. This increase is due to more boots on the ground inspecting.

Despite this progress, we at the agency must do more. We will expand implementation of best management practices as well as thinking of innovative ways to reduce phosphorus. We need policies that create new markets to export phosphorus and create incentives for farmers to keep phosphorus off the land.

Farmers are stepping up because they, too, are passionate about the land, water, animals and communities. They are passionate about the jobs that they provide, and committed to making the best, award winning products from Vermont. Passion extends to many others as well. The Agency of Agriculture is working closely with partners such as the Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Vermont Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lake Champlain Basin Program, and many more.

Certainly, there is much more work to do. But by working together with investment, education, enforcement, and assistance, Vermont is on an upward trajectory, aiming high for quality in land, water, and agriculture. We are all committed to a greener Green Mountain State, and unified, we will get there.

Article written by Anson Tebbetts, secretary, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

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