Champlain Valley Water Coalition: What Local Farmers are Doing to Improve Vermont’s Waterways

Champlain Valley Water Coalition: What Local Farmers are Doing to Improve Vermont’s Waterways

Phoenix Feeds Staff
Phoenix Feeds Staff

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At the top of a rise on the Monkton Road in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, the main facilities of Allandra Farm sit at the hub of a patchwork quilt of majestic fields and pastures. At the center of its activity is CEO, Alan Brisson, managing an operation that has grown over the years to roughly 900 Holsteins and 2,300 acres. He has a long history in the area and is in his 43rd year of farming, but on this late-summer day he’s not thinking much about the past.

At a quieter spot a few miles down the road, he’s spending some time with his prizewinning herd of 130 Brown Swiss; and he’s thinking about the future of Vermont’s dairy farms in an era of increased regulation. “For 30 years, there wasn’t that much coming out of Montpelier that was affecting us,” he says, “but in the last six or seven years there’s been a ton.”

Much of it centers around agriculture’s impact on Lake Champlain and other watersheds around the state, an issue many producers have been working to address for years; but for those grappling with known variables in everything from rainfall to milk prices, keeping up with the latest legislation and the state’s Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) is an added challenge to what already feels like a precarious way of life. In Brisson’s opinion, the stakes for farmers are high, and he’s direct in expressing his view of the risk.

“The smaller the window of opportunity becomes, the less likely it is that something will survive,” he says. “A farmer gets paid on what he gets done. If they keep narrowing the window of opportunity and we can’t get any work done, we become like the Catamount.”

Eager to avoid the fate of Vermont’s fabled mountain lion, Brisson recently joined the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, a non-profit established in 2013 with a stated mission to “show that a strong local farm economy and a clean Lake Champlain can work together.”

The group aims to play a proactive leadership role for addressing water quality—especially the prevention of nutrient loss to the lake and other waterways—and to present a unified voice for workable solutions with the Legislature, the Governor’s office, and state agencies. Brisson thinks the Coalition’s work is valuable for producers in the Champlain Valley Basin, and its mission is one he is eager to support.

“It’s just time,” he says. “We have to become involved. I’m more than willing to do my part to work with them and do it together. There’s power in numbers.”

Although Brisson adds a wry observation about the small number of farmers in one of the country’s smallest states, there’s no denying that in just four years the Coalition has assembled an impressive roster, and its members see its influence and value as both positive and increasing.

Its membership comprises 84 small, medium, and large producers, both organic and conventional, drawn from a variety of sectors that include dairy, vegetable, crop, beef, and other livestock. They are complemented by an additional membership of 40 supporting businesses and individuals. These represent enterprises supplying equipment and other products and services to the agricultural community in Vermont.

“There were twelve of us that showed up at the first meeting,” says Brian Kemp, reflecting on the group’s modest beginnings and how far it’s come since then. Kemp is the manager of Mountain Meadows Farm, a 500-head, certified organic beef cow farm in Sudbury that markets directly to Whole Foods. As a founding member of the Coalition and its current president, he’s been a frequent speaker at committee hearings and agency meetings in Montpelier. He’s noted a generally positive response.

“I have to say, for the most part we are very well received. We’ve had very positive feedback from the legislative body. They’re excited that farmers are being proactive and want to be at the table and part of the process rather than staying in the background.”

EDUCATING LAWMAKERS

A large part of the strategy in the communication with lawmakers is education. “There’s a tremendous learning curve with legislators,” says Louise Waterman, the Coalition’s Outreach Coordinator. “It used to be there were many retired farmers in the Legislature but there are not as many any more with that expertise. It’s our responsibility to educate them and bring them up to speed with what we’re doing as an industry.”

To further that goal, the Coalition invited legislators to participate in a June bus tour of six Coalition farms in Addison and Chittenden counties to showcase the conservation practices farms are adopting. The tour highlighted recent innovations such the use of manure injection, cover crop, and no till practices, as well as pasture and nutrient management on both dairy and vegetable farms.

“Members of this coalition are very much open to new ideas,” says Waterman. “That’s one of the reasons they joined, to learn about new methods and strategies for doing things. You can’t stay in business if you aren’t growing and changing with the times.”

Participants on the tour were a diverse group of legislators and farmers, as well as representatives from other water conservation groups and members of the public, all of whom had an opportunity to witness the Vermont farming industry’s commitment to the environment.

“Our primary aim and mission is to be good stewards of the land,” Kemp says. “We all love the lake and streams, too. We want to take care of them and do our best.”

FARMERS EDUCATING EACH OTHER

Being part of the solution also resonated with Peter James when he attended the group’s first meeting in 2013. James, who went on to become a member of the Coalition’s Board of Directors, is part of the third generation to own and operate Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge. With a 500-cow herd and 2,300 acres, it produces and processes milk for distribution on the western side of the state, from Brandon all the way up to the Canadian border.

“To me, it was a good idea,” James says of his decision to get involved. “My grandfather always wanted to make sure everything was good and clean. My father was the same way, and I am too. I wanted to be part of whatever we can do to make things better.”

While acknowledging the importance of the Coalition’s participation in legislative and regulatory processes, James also finds value in another stated goal of the group, which is to educate each other. He finds the group’s regular meetings, and its annual meeting in January, to be a rich environment for learning and problem-solving.

“It’s not all about policies. It’s about what works. Everybody’s got a different situation, a different idea, and everybody’s a good farmer with good stuff to bring to the table. People with all different types of problems sit down and talk together and come up with a solution.”

James believes the secret to the Coalition’s ability to generate creative ideas lies in the diversity of its membership, not only in terms of the agricultural sectors represented, but also in terms of size.

“Farmers are generally challenged in today’s world, and the more people we get involved, the more ideas we get. There’s a lot of farmers out there who will say ‘I’m too small, they aren’t going to listen to me,’ but it’s not about that at all. Whatever issue you have, we have, and vice versa, so I really encourage farmers to come see what it’s about—I don’t know of any members that haven’t been able to take something out of it.”

Brian and Patty Wilson, owners of Morningside Farm in Orwell can attest to this. They are the owners of the certified organic Morningside Farm in Orwell. They have been farming for about twenty years now, after moving to the area from New York.

“We came to Vermont with a dollar and a dream,” Brian Wilson says. When they first arrived, Patty worked for NRCS and Brian for Blue Seal Feeds, but then started thinking about getting into the agricultural business on a smaller scale.

“Grass farming was something we fell in love with,” Wilson says. “We started with a few animals and grazing and had fun with it. Then we started milking.”

With a herd of 50 cows, they are one of smaller producer members in the Coalition, but they feel confident they have a voice and that their contributions are valued.

“They’re great people,” Wilson says of the farmers he’s met since joining. “We’re all such a minority now, and when we sit down together we’re on the same playing field. I feel like they want me there. The reason we didn’t join earlier is that it’s hard for us to make meetings. We have six kids. The reason we did join is because we love the lake, and I think people need to be educated that we all have to do our part.”

Waterman acknowledges that time can be a limiting factor for some farmers. “You can’t do it all. But, you don’t have to. If you have something going on in your community or on your farm and you want support or to brainstorm, come to the meeting then. If you have an issue but can’t get to the meeting, shoot us an email and we’ll bring it up and get back to you.”

CROP PATROLS AND CONVERSATIONS

Along with the benefits of networking and sharing ideas at the monthly meetings, members can also participate in a number of field-based workshops the Coalition hosts in partnership with the UVM Extension. Sponsored by supporting business members, they are offered several times a year in the spring and fall, and include events such as clinics on best practices in manure and pesticide application, and “Crop Patrols” at member farms to demonstrate progress, results, and lessons learned from efforts to incorporate cover crops and no-till planting practices.

As Brian Kemp points out, not only do the workshops provide an opportunity for learning, they also help farmers meet RAP training requirements.

“That’s a big plus,” he says. “They don’t have to go to a state training. They can come to the Coalition event and get a lunch, and go out and walk the fields and talk to some colleagues who have tried these practices.”

The value of conversing with fellow farmers in the Champlain Valley region came as an unexpected benefit to Jeff Senesac. Cottonwood Stables, the equine management facility he co-owns with his wife, Lisa, has 200 acres of cropland, and the Winooski River meanders through much of it on its final approach to the lake. He became a member of the Coalition as a gesture of support for their efforts with lawmakers and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

“The Coalition was doing a lot to help influence the way the RAPs were going,” he says, “and you’ve got to give support, because I don’t have the time or ambition to go talk to politicians. If someone is willing to do that on my behalf I’m willing to support them.”

Since joining, however, Senesac has been surprised by how much he’s learned at meetings and workshops. “If you learn one thing at a meeting then it’s not a waste of time because sometimes it can save you a considerable amount of money.”

Senesac says he’s been able to act on much of what he’s taken away from the meetings, and notes that sometimes it had nothing to do with the meeting itself.

“I was at a spring planter clinic that the Coalition sponsored. Because I combine all my corn I have a lot of residue and was trying to find a way to manage all that so I could no-till plant. One of the guys there said, ‘Why don’t you get a stock shredder? They use them out west.’ That had never entered my mind. I bought a 15-footer and it works great.”

“It’s immediate,” he says. “And a lot of times, if you talk to a farmer that’s had a problem and he’s solved it, he can put it in a way that you can really relate to. Extension does an awful good job, but sometimes talking to someone who’s done it is just easier to understand. And if I don’t understand, they’ll say ‘Well come on up and I’ll show you.’”

A NO-TILL, COVER CROP ADVENTURE

Seeing is believing for Rob Hunt, too. It’s even in the name of the business he and his wife Suzy own together in Addison.

With a milking herd of 250, Bonaspecta (“good view”) Holsteins is a medium-sized dairy operation that also raises beef cows and pigs, and markets directly to Green Pasture Meats. The Hunts work with 660 acres, including 100 that are leased near the lake and are certified as organic. They’d never tried a cover crop, but the Coalition-sponsored workshops on the topic had impressed him, particularly the one conducted at the neighboring Vorsteveld farm last year.

“The presentation was in the field,” he says. “All the UVM Extension people were there, all these plant and soil experts. They had test plots showing each space and explaining what was done to it. And the farmers have good questions. You know, they aren’t just a bunch of people standing around waiting for the donuts. They’re people that really want to know.”

After some peer-to-peer consultation, Hunt decided it was worth a try. The Vorsteveld’s results were hard to ignore.

“They’ve just got hundreds of acres of fantastic corn,” he says.

“They’ve made their mistakes and are willing to tell you the do’s and don’t’s, but you go by there right now and they have some of the best corn in Addision County.”

With the help of the Extension Service, the Hunts identified a test plot of 35 acres and planted their first cover crop.

“UVM thought it would be a good piece of land to do a trial. I provided the seed but they planted it, so I didn’t have the cost of planting. But this spring it rained and rained. The plan was to do minimal tillage, plant the cover crop and away we’d go. Well, by the time we could plant the corn, the cover crop was six feet tall.”

Admitting that changing the mindset is likely the biggest challenge in any innovation, Hunt says he was prepared for a no-till planting disaster.

“You can’t plant through the woods!” he exclaims. “And we’ve got rye as tall as the back tires of the tractor. But then they brought in this roller-crimper.”

The equipment supplied by UVM Extension worked to break the hollow stems of the rye and lay them flat, while an additional planter-mounted device did the rest of the work.

“Behind the corn planter there’s flat rye,” Hunt says. “It looks like somebody laid out straw, and then there are these little slots where the corn planter pushes the trash out of the way and plants the corn. And I thought….whoah. That’s pretty cool.”

Overall, the first year has been a mixed experience for the Hunts, but they’ve learned a few things they can pass along to their colleagues when the Coalition brings a clinic to the Bonaspecta site, and in the meantime he’s grateful for the education he’s getting through the group, and happy to have them representing his interests with policymakers.

“I tend to start swearing, which isn’t that popular in Montpelier,” he says, laughing. “I have no problem with them representing me and our group because they know what they’re talking about. There isn’t anybody I’ve met in that group that doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

EDUCATING THE PUBLIC

Chanin Hill can understand the temptation to start swearing once in a while, but she takes the diplomatic route. “There are a lot of words that go through my head that don’t ever come out of my mouth,” she says with a smile.

She is the business manager of Four Hills Farm, which takes its name from the four partners who co-own it: her husband, Brian Hill, and his siblings Ronald, Kevin and Joanne. The farm milks 1,650 cows and Hill is proud of the projects the family has tackled over the years to protect their surrounding environment. Long before its membership in the Coalition, the farm was working to implement sustainable practices.

As a result of major improvements made on one of their properties to mitigate any threat to the Little Otter Creek nearby, Four Hills received the Conservation Farmer of the Year award from the Otter Creek Natural Resources District. It was at the awards ceremony that Jeff Carter, the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition’s Board Treasurer, approached her.

“Jeff said, you’re already doing a lot of what we’re doing, so why aren’t you part of the Coalition. I didn’t even really know what they did, but that’s when I started to get involved.”

For Hill, one of the greatest benefits of her involvement has been in connecting with the third major focus area for the Coalition, which is educating the public. Although often a challenge, the group’s members recognize it as critical to counter misconceptions with information and facts.

“People make conclusions based on what they know,” Alan Brisson reasons. “If they are ignorant of a subject they still have a conclusion.”

For that reason, many Coalition members actively seek opportunities for dialogue with the public. At Cottonwood Stables, Jeff Senesac mentions participating in a field day for local officials to demonstrate initiatives for improving water quality. Brian Kemp is involved in the planning for a public session at Middlebury College to review the investments being made in sustainable practices. He and the Hunts also recently volunteered at one of the major agricultural events in Vermont for the public. “Breakfast on the Farm” features two host farms each summer. They open their doors and invite the public for a free pancake breakfast with a side serving of information. The July event at Blue Spruce Farm, a Coalition member, featured fifteen educational stations covering not only the basics about cows and the milk they produce, but also water quality initiatives. The event had a record-breaking attendance, with 1,200 breakfasts served in just under four hours.

Four Hills Farm is a regular participant at another event called the “Tour de Farms”, one of the oldest cycling farm tours in Vermont. Chanin Hill says she was happy to have the Coalition’s involvement for last year’s tour.

“They’d just passed the RAPs and there was a lot of news about it, so I asked the Coalition if they could come and talk to people. I thought there would be a lot of questions, and I get pulled away doing guided tours. So they did come and set up a booth and that was very helpful.”

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

Even more helpful was the Coalition’s moral support and assistance this past spring, when Four Hills became a target on the area’s Front Porch Forum. Ironically, the criticism came as a direct result of their implementation of no-till planting. Commenters expressed concern about the sudden transformation of the fields from green to brown after an application of glyphosate.

“We’ve been integrating piece by piece,” Hill says. “This year I’d say 90% of our corn crop went in no-till. So it was larger scale, and they didn’t see it before. Before, we’d turn over the soil and then spray. No brown grass. Now, we’ve stopped turning the soil over, so we’re not running the tractors as much. The nutrients are staying in the soil and not running off into our waterways, and it’s better. But people see brown grass and they assume we’re making everybody ill. Somebody was saying essentially that we were poisoning our land.”

Feeling that she needed to respond, and knowing she needed help addressing the technical questions, Hill reached out to Coalition partners Jeff Carter and Kirsten Workman from UVM Extension. They helped her produce a measured response for the Forum, and Jeff additionally reached out to the original commenter to invite him on the June Bus Tour for more education on cover crop practices.

“I had a relatively decent response,” Hill says. “About 20 or 30 people emailed or Facebook messaged me, or called to say ‘Thank you. We just didn’t know.’” This is why Hill thinks the Coalition and its members have an important role to play in setting the record straight, and it’s why she holds on to her composure in addressing misunderstandings.

“You need to roll it back and say ‘wait a minute.’ You can’t judge them, because they just don’t know what we’re doing. I really feel like you have to reach out. You can’t keep those doors shut all the time or people will only know what they see in the media.”

AN EYE ON THE HORIZON

Being a voice for the farm community with the public, each other, and the players in Montpelier also requires thinking ahead, and Coalition president Brian Kemp says the group has its eye on the opportunities and challenges that will drive some of its education and advocacy in the immediate future.

“We’re all trying, and we’re experimenting,” he says, “but it comes at a cost. All of this has really impacted a lot of farms financially with new practices, new equipment. Some of the bigger farms that have their own manure handling systems now have over a half-million dollars invested. The no-till practices require a notill planter. That can be close to $70,000, and manure injection tools are expensive.”

Kemp sees funding as a critical ingredient going forward, and the Coalition will be looking at that on several fronts. “We need to keep this water quality funding coming. The governor has pledged $25 million for the next two years, but what’s after that?”

The group’s leadership will also continue its communications about new programs and grant proposals that could allow members to secure funding for either equipment purchase or infrastructure projects; and they will look for further public education opportunities such as the two professionally produced videos recently posted on the Coalition’s website. They explain the conservation benefits of cover crops and proper manure handling.

They will also aim to continue building on their profile with state government. The Coalition was recently invited to participate in Governor Scott’s press conference to mark Clean Water Week, which Kemp saw as an affirmation of their value and visibility.

“That was nice, for the Coalition to be asked to go up and say a few words.” He smiles. “They know who we are, and it’s nice.”