by Chuck Ross, Secretary, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, & Markets
The clean water bill currently under consideration in the Vermont House of Representatives (House Bill 35) is a vital step forward for Vermont’s efforts to address the problem of polluted storm water runoff into our lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. This bill addresses the problem of excess nutrients and sediment that flow off of our parking lots, roofs, roads, driveways, yards and farm fields when the snow melts or the rain falls. As Secretary of Agriculture, as a farmer, as a father, and as someone who takes great pleasure in enjoying swimming, boating and fishing on Lake Champlain, I could not be more pleased with the direction that the legislature is headed with this important piece of legislation. The health of our state’s economy, including our farm economy, depends upon finding a solution to the our water quality challenges.
One telling indicator of the current problem are the outbreaks of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that have, in recent years, grown worse, particularly in the shallow, northern bays in Lake Champlain and in other smaller lakes and ponds across Vermont including Lake Memphremagog and Lake Carmi. I was dismayed to see the extent of the outbreak that affected Missisquoi Bay on Lake Champlain this summer when I went to see the problem myself. These outbreaks are not just a nuisance that interferes with our ability to enjoy swimming, boating and fishing. They also pose a public health threat and represent a significant decline in the ecological integrity of our waters. This is a problem that has built up over decades. It is clear that protecting these precious resources is our duty and obligation. We must act now to reverse the current trend of increasing levels of pollution into our state’s waters.
A strength of the approach taken by the House of Representatives in H.35 is that it addresses the major sources of excess nutrients, particularly phosphorus, including sediment from agriculture, storm water, and from developed lands and roads. Among those sources, agriculture has been identified as contributing 40% of the phosphorus load. With that in mind, I would like to highlight some of the agriculture related measures that have been proposed in the clean water bill. The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) will be tasked with implementing the changes, and will work to find a lasting solution with help from the legislature, farmers, and the support of Vermonters.
Key points in the clean water bill relating to agriculture:
1) Updating the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAP’s). These practices set the minimum requirements that farmers must meet to protect water quality and will be updated to include requirements such as fencing livestock out of streams, increasing the size of buffers along ditches and streams, and using conservation practices on farm fields to reduce soil erosion. Beginning in summer 2015, AAFM will begin the process of updating the AAP’s, which is expected to take about 18 months. The public will have the opportunity to provide comment to help inform this process. The goal of process is to enhance the current AAP’s to ensure greater protection of our natural resources.
2) Certifying Small Farms. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, Vermont has more than 7,000 farms. Currently, VAAFM regularly inspects and certifies 166 farms, mostly medium and large dairy operations. In order to ensure all farms in the state are complying with the Accepted Agricultural Practices, small farms will be required to self-certify. “Small farms” will be defined by criteria which may include the number of acres or amount of farm products sold.
3) Certifying Custom applicators. Professionals hired to apply manure or nutrients will be required to complete training to ensure they understand best practices for minimizing runoff.
4) Streamlining VAAFM’s enforcement process. The Agency have increased authority to issue emergency orders, mandatory corrective actions, and removal of livestock in cases of immediate need, so significant water quality violations can be dealt with more swiftly and efficiently.
5) Tying Current Use Valuation to water quality compliance. A farm’s current use enrollment could be suspended if they are in violation of clean water requirements after the completion of a 3-step enforcement process for dealing with water quality violations. If a farmer ignores water quality requirements at the end of that process, their Current Use enrollment would be suspended.
6) Building Capacity to assist with education, outreach, and enforcement: There are more than 7000 farms in Vermont. Currently VAAFM has only five staff in the field working with farmers on outreach and compliance issues. The legislation will enable AAFM to work directly with farmers to promote water quality through stewardship practices and AAP compliance.
Agriculture is critical to our way of life here in Vermont. More than 1.2 million acres of Vermont land is devoted to farming, and agriculture is one of our most important industries. As an example, Vermont’s dairy industry, our largest agricultural sector, creates between 6,000-7,000 jobs, brings $3 million to the state each day, and drives $2.2 billion in annual economic activity. Our livestock farmers, equestrians, poultry farmers, and vegetable and fruit growers are all vital parts of our local, agricultural food system. Agriculture, as a whole, preserves open land, provides us healthy local foods, and is an essential part of Vermont’s identity.
At the same time, Vermont’s waters are critical to our economy and to our quality of life. We do not have to trade one for the other. H.35 can be an important step to realizing our shared goal of protecting a landscape with working farms and forests with clear running streams and rivers, and healthy ponds and lakes.
The vast majority of Vermont farmers are outstanding stewards and are actively working to protect the waters of our state. This proposed legislation will help ensure all farmers are held accountable, so that agriculture and our natural resources can thrive, together.