New rules for small farms criticized as costly and overbroad


ST. ALBANS >> Some farmers say proposed rules meant to protect Lake Champlain from runoff could jeopardize profits and that the agency has overstepped what legislators intended when they adopted the law requiring those rules.

Staffers from the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets reviewed the rules Tuesday evening in St. Albans before an audience of about 50 as part of an effort to get public input before the rules are finalized.Called "required agricultural practices," the rules resulted from last year's Act 64, which in part directed the agency to curtail farms' pollution of Lake Champlain with excess phosphorus.

Farmers use nutrients including phosphorus and nitrogen, often in the form of manure, to fertiize crops. But since these nutrients also feed toxic blue-green algae in Lake Champlain and Vermont's other surface waters, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required the state to stem the flow of phosphorus from farmlands and other sources.

The required agricultural practices will force small farmers to manage manure and farmland more strictly. Medium and large farms already must follow the rules.

"Everybody wants to clean up the lake, but I'm worried about the sustainability of the business as we go forward," agriculture consultant Rick Button told agency officials.

The rules will shorten some Vermont farmers' growing season by more than a week, Button said. That and other effects of the rules would diminish farmers' income by about 6 percent, or increase costs by the same amount, Button said.

Sheldon farmer Bill Rowell said farmers bear more than their fair share of blame for Lake Champlain's pollution. Farmers aren't making much money, Rowell said, and their predicament isn't helped by politicians in Montpelier who stoke anti-farmer sentiment among Vermonters who don't understand that those in agriculture consider environmental stewardship part of their heritage.

"It seems like the intent of a rule goes out the window when it gets to an agency," Rowell said, adding that his peers feel disgruntled over what they perceive as too onerous an interpretation of what Act 64 requires.

Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, told Agriculture Agency staffers that he, too, worries about the rulemaking process and hopes the agency will work with farmers instead of merely penalizing them.

Others expressed frustration at the way the costs of protecting the lake are being assigned. Farmers are eligible for state and federal funding to put best practices in place.

"I don't think taxpayers should be paying for it," said Lake Champlain International Executive Director James Ehlers. "I think the consumers should be, but the major distributors don't like that, because they'll sell less Twinkies if corn wasn't being subsidized through labor and pollution."

"Producing corn while respecting human labor, and respecting the environment, is not cheap, and that is the root of the problem," Ehlers said. "If farmers want to keep getting treated (badly) — milking cows for absolute basement prices — go ahead, but we're going to push back. If you want to exploit yourself, that's fine, but you can't exploit our water. It belongs to all of us."

It's illegal to discharge any pollutant into state waterways, said Deputy Agriculture Director Laura DiPietro. How small farmers prevent water pollution has been largely up to them.

Now, under the proposed rules, any farm pulling in $2,000 in gross income in an average year will be expected to follow the required agricultural practices — formerly known as acceptable agricultural practices. So, too, will any farm of 4 acres or more that holds four horses, or five bovine, or 100 laying hens, or 15 swine, or various numbers of other species that include crops and vegetables. About 5,500 of these operations are found in Vermont, according to Agency of Agriculture figures.

A subset of small farms, called certified small farms, will become subject to annual inspections to check compliance. Those farms cover at least 10 acres and have greater numbers of mature dairy cows, or swine weighing over 55 pounds, or turkeys or ducks, and so forth. About 1,500 of these exist in Vermont.

The rules require certified small farms to file a plan to manage manure and to file annual reports on their operations. Owners of certified farms also must attend classes on practices meant to prevent unnecessary pollution. They must also adhere to a winter manure-spreading ban, when precipitation more readily flushes it into surface waters.

The practices are already required of medium and large farm operations, both of which are defined by the number of animals they contain. A medium farm operation has 200 to 699 dairy cows, or 150 to 499 horses, or 3,000 to 9,999 sheep, while a large farm has more than 700 dairy cows, 500 horses or 10,000 sheep.

The agency is still taking public comments, although the rules' current draft probably won't change dramatically before the Legislature's Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules reviews and potentially approves them, DiPietro said. A final draft of the rules is due to that committee in September, she said.

Many of the proposed rules have existed in some form since at least 1986, although not necessarily mandatory.

Public hearings on the formal draft of the new rules began Tuesday with the St. Albans meeting. Three more are scheduled next week in Manchester, Newport and Brattleboro. The public comment period ends July 7.

The formal draft rules, details on the meetings and instructions for commenting can be found here.

Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger.


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