Clean Water and Viable Farms: Farmers and Environmentalists Must Lead Together

Over the next few months, we’re writing a series of blog posts about challenges and opportunities in Vermont’s agricultural sector. We’re exploring the role of agriculture in Vermont’s rural communities and how farming could contribute to clean water and climate resilience for all of us. Last month, we talked about why the time for these conversations is now.

Mark Magnan (left) and David Mears at the 2019 Northern Tier Dairy Summit. Photo credit Michael Frett, St. Albans Messenger.

Mark Magnan (left) and David Mears at the 2019 Northern Tier Dairy Summit. Photo credit Michael Frett, St. Albans Messenger.

In April, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets hosted the Northern Tier Dairy Summit in Jay. The goal of the summit was to address head-on the challenges facing the dairy industry in New England. The problems that people wanted to talk about most were the persistent low prices of milk, with the attendant challenges of oversupply and an unpredictable, competitive global market.

Breakout sessions focused on the strategies for the next generation of farming in Vermont: the diversification of value-added products to create new markets, robust support and planning for farmland succession and transition to new ownership, and the potential to compensate farmers for providing healthy soil, clean water, and other ecosystem services to the public beyond the food they produce. 

It was fun to hear the buzz of new opportunities bounce around the halls between presentations: Hemp… Goat Milk… Pasture-based meat and dairy… no-till practices… There was healthy skepticism too. The repeated call from the summit’s speakers was that there is no one solution to these challenges. Still, most people were hopeful that some combination of these strategies will add up to something meaningful for Vermont’s agricultural future.

In the opening hour of the Dairy Summit, Mark Magnan, of the Magnan Brothers Farm in East Fairfield, and David Mears, High Meadows board member as well as Executive Director of Audubon Vermont and former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, took the stage to call attention to the recommendations of the Vermont Dairy and Water Collaborative.

The Collaborative was a yearlong process in which farmers, distributers, scientists (agronomists and ecologists), policy makers, state agency staff (DEC and VAAFM[1]) and farm finance and technical service providers met to reach a common understanding of the interconnected and complex problems of water quality and farm viability in Vermont. The shared platform at the summit demonstrated how a common vision could be achieved between the farming and environmental communities.

Building on the momentum of the Vermont Dairy and Water Collaborative, farming leaders and heads of several environmental nonprofits in Vermont are now exploring the creation of a “farm and water coalition” to cultivate the passion and political energy required to sustain broad-based, durable changes at the intersection of farming and water quality.

When we put hope in broad coalitions and encourage the farming and environmental communities to lead together, we’re not being too sunny about the likelihood of conflict and disagreement. The ecological integrity of Vermont’s landscape IS at risk, and the viability of Vermont’s farms IS in jeopardy. We don’t hope for farmers and environmentalists to compromise to the point where we fail on either front.

We also don’t mean to present a perfect dichotomy: some environmentalists are also farmers, and most farmers consider themselves stewards of the natural resources they rely on. Likewise, we believe these broad and diverse coalitions will need to include more than farmers and environmental advocates.

But we emphasize the need for listening and collaboration between farmers and environmentalists because agricultural and water quality science and policy issues are very complex. Both communities also stand to gain from each other’s success.

Encouraging farm practices that improve soil health holds opportunity for infiltrating and filtering rainwater, sequestering carbon, and storing water during flood events. Those benefits are less likely if land becomes developed for housing, rather than farms.

Farmers too want to retain their soil and nutrients, rather than losing these assets into waters they themselves use for recreation and fishing. And, many feel practices that steward soil and water can translate into additional market value. But, putting new ideas into practice requires research, piloting, tinkering, and, most importantly, time and trust.

As these conversations and coalitions begin to coalesce, there will be deliberation over who is at the table and what is the scope of the problems we’re trying to solve. To rightfully answer that question—What are the problems to be addressed first and which strategies hold the most promise?—farmers and environmentalists must have the courage and patience to hear each other and hear the voices of all Vermonters who have a stake in Vermont agriculture.

[1] DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) and VAAFM (Vt Agency of Agriculture and Farm Markets)