Partnership is key to ongoing effort to mitigate agricultural impacts on Lake Champlain

By Chuck Ross, Secretary Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets

With the recent series of meetings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) there has been much discussion about the agricultural water quality efforts ongoing in the State. As the Secretary of Agriculture, I am responsible for ensuring that agricultural non-point source rules are enforced. I know that the success of our farms depends on a commitment to environmental stewardship and I want to take a moment to explain our regulatory and enforcement programs and to outline our current strategy to focus on the Northern Lake Champlain watersheds (Lake Carmi, Missisquoi Bay, and St. Albans Bay).

First, it is important to note that since 1995 all farms in Vermont have been required to operate in compliance the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs). The AAPs are state-wide regulations designed to conserve and protect natural resources by reducing non-point source pollution through the implementation of improved farming techniques. When farms violate the AAPs, they are subject to regulatory actions that may include penalties. In conjunction with the new TMDL, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (AAFM) is proposing revisions to the AAPs that will require a higher level of performance.

Since 1999, Large Farm Operations (700 plus mature dairy cows) have been held to even higher standards and inspected annually to ensure compliance. In 2006, Medium Farm Operations (200-699 mature dairy cows) came under similarly stringent rules. These rules govern the way farms manage manure, waste water and field operations, as well as requiring nutrient management planning and the installation of structures to prevent pollution.

When farmers fail to comply with the regulations, we are required by state statute to give them notice through a formal enforcement action that a violation exists. The farms are informed about technical assistance options to assure compliance. If they fail to correct the violation in a timely manner, further enforcement actions will be taken. While farming is a critical component of Vermont’s landscape and economy, so is clean water: therefore our Agency has the responsibility to ensure the waters of Vermont are protected from agricultural impacts. In the past two years, AAFM partnered with the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and the Attorney General’s Office to ratchet up our water quality protection efforts, which has led to increased penalties. Current examples include fines of $33,000 and $40,000 on two separate farms.

We recently launched a small farm inspection program in an effort to move away from complaint-based investigations. For the first time we can conduct more routine inspections of small farms to ensure they are aware of the AAPs and to provide them notice of where they may need to install Best Management Practices (BMPs) in order to comply with these rules.  It is important to note that most of Vermont’s dairies are small farms (fewer than 200 mature cows), and there are many other small livestock operations in the state (eg. horses, beef), so it is critical we have the capacity to bring these farmers more tightly into our regulatory framework.

In addition, this summer AAFM and ANR have jointly focused our resources on Northern Lake Champlain watersheds, resulting in more inspections, education, technical assistance and enforcement in the Franklin County area where we face some of our most serious water quality issues. Our new Small Farm Program inspector has visited more than 175 of the small farms (dairy, beef, equine, etc.) so far this year. These efforts have increased our farm visits in Franklin County by more than 30 percent, and have resulted in 40 percent more enforcement actions. In an effort to inspect as many farms as possible in the near term, we are deploying all the resources we have available in this area for a number of months to ensure farms are complying with the law. We want to make sure all farms in the Northern Lake watersheds understand the rules and comply with them.

On the whole, Vermont farmers are outstanding stewards of our environment who recognize their success relies on the health of our natural resources. However, many smaller farmers, especially non-dairy farmers, are not aware that state and federal regulations apply to all farms, and we are working to provide the education needed to help all Vermont farmers understand the regulatory requirements in effect. Moreover, for those farmers working hard to comply with those regulations, we are helping them identify problems, prioritize projects, and access the technical, engineering and financial resources available from state and federal sources to protect water quality.  Nonetheless, as in any industry, a few bad apples can tarnish the reputation of all. Let it be known, these “bad apples” are the minority, and we are ratcheting up our enforcement efforts to bring them into compliance.

Agriculture is critical to the economic viability of Vermont, and the dairy industry is the bedrock of Vermont agriculture. Lake Champlain is one of Vermont’s most precious resources, and the future of the lake will depend on farmers, businesses, communities, individuals and policy-makers working together to build a culture of lake stewardship and accountability. It will require cooperation, innovation, and a long term determined effort to protect the Lake for future generations. I believe we can have both–a clean, healthy lake and a viable, sustainable agriculture and dairy economy.