Environmental groups are pushing for more agriculture regulations. Farmers say theyre already strapped. by ReTime.org December 28, 2021 0 Shares 0 0 Heavy rain and extreme weather are predicted to become more common in Vermont because of climate change, and in an effort to reduce runoff into local waters, environmental organizations are urging state officials to regulate farming practices more strictly. In a letter to Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, three environmental groups implore the agency to strengthen its Required Agricultural Practices. The practices, implemented in 2016 and amended in 2018, established standards to protect local waterways from pollution that might come from Vermont farms, such as fertilizer runoff. Authors believe the rules should acknowledge the growing role of climate change, and thereby become more stringent. About 40% of the phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain comes from agriculture, according to the Total Maximum Daily Load, a restoration plan for the lake created in collaboration with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Members of the environmental organizations had heard rumblings that the Agency of Agriculture was looking to revise the Required Agricultural Practices, so they decided to reach out with input, according to Elena Mihaly, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, and Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Some minimal draft changes in the practices have been circulated to the farming community, according to an email exchange between Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, and Mihaly. Tebbetts said there are no plans to reopen the rules. We do not believe it’s necessary to open up these RAPs that’s been requested by these environmental groups, Tebbetts said. Farmers are already trying to meet the water quality standards and account for climate change, he said. Opening up the RAPs is a very public process, he said. The farmers can comment, the public can comment. It is a time-consuming process, it is a costly process, it’s a lengthy process, so it’s not something that we want to do every other day. Raising questions The groups have made a suite of suggestions about which practices should be strengthened if the rules were opened. It questions whether more small farms that are now exempt should be included, and it asks whether farmers need more training on water quality practices. It suggests that a slew of already required practices from manure application to buffer zones to cover cropping need bolstering to protect waters as precipitation increases. John Roberts, executive director of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, said some of the proposed regulations seem more reasonable than others. Farmers need flexibility to adapt to changing seasons and weather, he said, and if more farmers need to be inspected, the agency may need more staff. Frankly, I have no problem with reviewing the RAPs and saying, are they up to the task? Roberts said, adding that farmers should have a say in the process, and that any new regulations should come along with financial and technical support. Mihaly said the letter is crafted to ask, rather than tell, the agency how to strengthen the practices. She said the process used to adopt the first rules didnt go far enough. I think some good dialogue was generated there, but ultimately, many in the environmental community did feel like the rules fell short of the kinds of protections that we need from a soil health and water quality perspective, she said. The rules that went into effect were a compromise in and of themselves, Groveman said. Abbie Corse, an organic dairy farmer based in Whitingham who served on the Vermont Climate Council, said the majority of farmers have either already implemented water quality practices or dont have the financial means to carry them out. I don’t disagree with the RAPs. I think they were necessary, Corse said. I don’t, however, think that we did enough work in understanding what the repercussions of them would be. The 2018 round of Required Agricultural Practices put farmers out of business, she said. She emphasized the importance of Vermonts local food network, which could help the state maintain food accessibility should farming become more difficult in other regions. It’s largely your small and medium-sized farms, because they can’t compete economically. They cant meet economies of scale, Corse said. The national marketplace has left them behind. The global marketplace certainly has. What has already changed Environmentalists and farmers have long disagreed about how to control agricultural pollution coming from farms. Tebbetts said farmers are making progress: Theyre responsible for about 90% of the phosphorus reduction thats taken place in the Lake Champlain basin. Management practices have been implemented on more than 50,000 acres of agricultural land, according to the latest Clean Water Performance Report, published in January 2021. In 2020, management practices prevented an estimated 11,291 kilograms of phosphorus almost 25,000 pounds from entering local waterways. When the Total Maximum Daily Load was established in 2016, Vermont was loading about 631 metric tons about 1.4 million pounds of phosphorus into Lake Champlain each year. The goal outlined in the document was 418 metric tons per year, 921,690 pounds. In fiscal year 2020, Vermont reduced its phosphorus load by 28.2 metric tons, 62,181 pounds, according to the performance report. We all acknowledge that there can be more that needs to be done, Tebbetts said. As opposed to more regulations, the best approach is to offer more education, more outreach, more technical assistance, and more financial assistance to support our farmers as they adapt and be more resilient to climate change. The Total Maximum Daily Load and the current Required Agricultural Practices already account for increased amounts of precipitation from climate change, Tebbetts said. While the states Climate Action Plan, published on Dec. 1, doesnt specifically suggest changing the Required Agricultural Practices rule, it does recommend expanding management practices for farmers. Environmentalists agree that farmers should receive financial and technical support if they face more regulations. I think it is important to put resources towards supporting farmers to transition to these practices that have lots of co-benefits for the environment for public health, Mihaly said. Farmers struggling Corses concerns run more deeply. She articulated a divide between environmental groups and farmers that she feels sends environmental efforts backward. While environmental groups have the power to influence policy, she said, farmers dont often have the time or resources to speak on these issues. She assumes her farm will go out of business within her lifetime, she said. This work for these people, while I know it comes from a place of well meaning and good heart it is theoretical for these folks, Corse said. See Also Good for your mental health is being good for the environment I am scared by the barriers I have faced to be understood, she said. Groveman said the groups have made continued efforts to work with farmers, and he, too, agrees that support should accompany new regulations. He said he recognizes that farmers are struggling now, but on the other hand, we can’t be blind to the impacts that farm pollution continues to have on water quality, and that those impacts are increasing because of climate change. Corse said farmers are in a unique position because their businesses are impacted by the changing climate, but they can also help create soils that filter water and sequester carbon and they perform the essential function of feeding communities. We should be arming our farmers, and the people who are working in our food systems, with the resources to do what they know needs to be done, she said. Don’t miss a thing. Sign up here to get VTDigger’s weekly email on the energy industry and the environment. Did you value this story? If so, please support VTDigger’s nonprofit journalism during our end-of-year membership drive today. Your gift will power our local journalism and send 10 meals to the Vermont Foodbank. 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