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Feb 05, 2016

Small farmers will face additional scrutiny of their operations based on new rules released Wednesday for protecting the Missisquoi Bay’s watershed.

Chuck Ross, the secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, issued a revised decision requiring farmers to follow what are known as best management practices.

Agency officials say the rules will force farmers in the Missisquoi Bay watershed to better manage manure to prevent runoff that has been tied to phosphorus pollution and toxic blue-green algae blooms in Lake Champlain.

Ross’ new decision follows years of legal action initiated by the Conservation Law Foundation.

In a previous decision, the secretary refused to impose best management practices on Missisquoi Bay farms. At the time, the agency didn’t have the personnel to help farms implement the new standards.

A new water quality law passed last year, Act 64, gave the agency enough resources to monitor and inspect farms.

The imposition of best management practices won’t put an onerous financial burden on farmers, according to Jim Leland, the director of agriculture resource management at the agency. That’s because the new rules could save money, and costs incurred by farmers will be subsidized, Leland said.

“Most things we’re talking about will be practical and cost-effective to implement,” Leland said. “It’s more about management than about installing a Cadillac system.”

The decision requires farmers to adopt new standards for manure storage and management, silage storage, and cover cropping, Leland said.

Many of these practices will save farmers money in the long run, Leland said, and upfront investments will be covered by cost-sharing programs already in place.

“If farmers engage with the process of figuring out what to do … they might find it’s not as expensive or all-encompassing as they think that it is,” he said.

Chris Kilian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont, said the decision from the Agency of Agriculture gives the conventional dairy industry 10 years to stop polluting Lake Champlain.

“Agriculture cannot be defined as sustainable if it is destroying Lake Champlain and threatening people’s health, so we need to find a different model,” Kilian said.

Chris Kilian, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation, spoke at a symposium to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act at the ECHO Center in Burlington on Thursday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

[Chris Kilian is director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger]

“The process we’ve negotiated … really sets the stage for that question to be answered,” he said. “We’re hopeful that it works, and we’ll certainly be watching and participating as that process unfolds.”

Water quality advocates hailed the decision as an important step but said more urgent action is required.

“We’re pleased to see the secretary recognizes the condition of the Missisquoi River watershed,” said James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International. “But more aggressive measures are necessary to protect the public’s interest in healthy water.”

“We would expect that the agency will abide by the timeline, because further delay is not acceptable,” Ehlers said. “We think that 10 years is very generous, given the current plight of property owners, and the recreational and other interests of the public that are being negatively impacted by industrial agriculture practices.”

Much of the burden falls on small farmers, although what precisely defines a small farm has yet to be determined, Leland said. The new rules are part of a suite of regulations in a separate agency effort that changes what are called accepted agricultural practices to required agricultural practices.

Both changes — those involving required practices and those requiring best management practices — mainly concern farms with between five and 199 cows. The roughly 170 medium- and large-sized farms in the state already follow both sets of practices, Leland said.

These practices will control the runoff of the nutrient phosphorus, which is a component of manure and other fertilizers, from farmland into Vermont’s waters. Excess phosphorus in Lake Champlain has caused an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae, to a degree that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is writing rules that will impose further restrictions on pollution from Vermont’s landscape.

The new decision on best management practices will require Vermont’s Agriculture Agency to inspect for conformity within the next six years all farms that ship milk, and within the next 10 years all farms with livestock, Leland said.

These regulatory changes resulted from last year’s water quality protection law, Act 64. It mandated agricultural practices meant to protect water quality. That act also led Ross to revise the earlier decision against requiring best management practices in Missisquoi Bay’s watershed, Leland said.

The new decision stands as a litmus test for farmers and for the agency to demonstrate that it can operate in a way that doesn’t pollute Lake Champlain, Kilian said.

“We view this as a major step forward, and an acknowledgment by the agricultural community and Secretary Ross that farmers need to step up and do their part,” he said.

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