Vermont’s Small Farmers Face Tough Water Rules, Inspections

Published October 2, 2015

Vermont’s approximately 7,000 small farmers will soon be receiving visitors from the state’s Agency for Agriculture on a regular basis as part of the agency’s effort to enforce the state’s law designed to reduce agricultural pollution of waterways.

The state’s Clean Water Act, Act 64, has been on the books for years, but many of its provisions have not been regularly enforced. This is about to change, with regular farm inspections set to get underway in 2017. In addition to stepped-up enforcement of current law, new water rules are under consideration in the state’s capital and at the federal level. 

Nutrient Management Plans

Under the new enforcement plan, small farmers will have to certify they comply with the Required Agricultural Practices specified in Act 64, including soil-testing their fields every three to five years and submitting nutrient management plans showing how they intend to ensure manure and fertilizer doesn’t leach into waterways.

Though it is a small state, Vermont’s varied landscape makes uniform enforcement of the law challenging. Measures to reduce runoff in the flat Champlain Valley won’t work on farms on one of Vermont’s many mountains.

Financial Burdens

Vermont’s small farmers fear the potential costs of the rules. The state’s rocky soil and frigid winters make farming difficult under the best circumstances, and the new compliance regime will likely increase costs for farmers, many of whom already have difficulty making ends meet.

Vermont farmer Frank Hutchins has 70 dairy cows on his hilly 200-acre farm. Keeping cows out of streams, containing manure, and reducing the flow of rainwater from his farm into nearby waterways are his major concerns.

“In the past, I had animals outdoors in the winter, and they were in a stream that’s since been fenced out,” he told Vermont Public Radio.

Even with financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Hutchins will still have to pick up a hefty chunk of the $150,000 price tag for projects to reduce runoff on his farm. 

Foretaste of WOTUS

Like their counterparts across the country, Vermont’s small farmers and other landowners may soon be confronted with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule as well.

EPA’s initiative brings hundreds of millions of acres of private land under the agency’s jurisdiction. Vermont’s farmers may find their state’s expanded enforcement of water rules is mild compared to what WOTUS will require.

“Agriculture is under the microscope when it comes to water pollution,” said Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation. “While state action is likely better than federal intervention, Vermont shouldn’t be taking what appears to be a command-and-control approach to address the alleged agricultural pollution.

“It sounds as if Vermonters might have state inspectors visiting them more often than their own family,” Bakst said. “There’s something wrong with the level of intrusion, regardless of whether it comes from Washington or Montpelier.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.