The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the State of Vermont recently held a series of public meetings to discuss options for restoring water quality in Lake Champlain. All sources of phosphorus contributions to the lake are being considered and agriculture is no exception; nor should it be with an estimated 40% of the phosphorus load to the lake from farmsteads, cropland and pasture (Tetra Tech, 2013).
In the process of working towards a Lake Champlain restoration plan, the Department of Environmental Conservation partnered with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets in a long-term discussion with the agricultural community over the past year. Last fall, we jointly held 22 focus groups and meetings to ask farmers what they felt were valuable farm practices towards environmental improvement, what wasn’t working and potential new ideas. In January of 2013, an Agricultural Working Group was formed that included 25 farmers from farms of various types and sizes as well as technical service providers who work closely with farmers. This group met seven times over six months to prioritize the ideas from the focus group meetings, deeply discuss certain ideas and develop a list of recommendations for priorities in moving forward on agricultural water quality improvements. The group was facilitated by Matt Strassberg and Patrick Field of the Environmental Mediation Center (EMC) and the Consensus Building Institute The interim report and all meeting minutes are currently available on EMC’s website and the final report will be available soon.
The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Agriculture greatly appreciate the enormous commitment these 25 individuals made in helping us move forward with strong recommendations and ideas, most of which are being discussed at the public meetings. If approved, we believe that these recommendations can make a strong impact on phosphorus runoff, and in many cases, can also benefit the farmers. One example is requiring a written nutrient management plan on all farms that meet a certain size and criteria. This would be a new requirement for smaller farms; however, a well-done and implemented nutrient management plan can potentially save agricultural producers thousands of dollars in decreased purchased fertilizer or better field practices.
The Agriculture workgroup and both agencies recognize challenges will exist in implementing practices to restore the lake and will provide available resources and assistance. Later blogs will discuss some of the various recommendations and ways to make them an asset to farm sustainability as well as water quality.