New rules aimed at reducing phosphorous runoff into Lake Champlain and other waterways mean expensive fixes for some small farms that will force them to make difficult decisions, including whether or not they stay in business.
Small farms haven't had as much oversight as their larger counterparts, so the state is now surveying such operations in northwestern Vermont, mostly Franklin County, where toxic algae blooms have plagued parts of the lake, fed in part by phosphorus-laden runoff from farms.
Agriculture Agency staff are visiting small livestock farms and notifying them of changes they need to make now and in the future following the passage of a state water quality law signed by the governor in June. Some small farms with at least 10 acres will need to certify in 2017 that they are in compliance with required agricultural practices related to nutrient management, manure storage and buffer zones between crops and waterways. The exact definition of a small farm will be determined in 2016.
"We're definitely seeing some real challenges," said Laura DiPietro, the agricultural water quality policy and operations manager for the Agriculture Agency, which has visited about half of the roughly 400 small livestock farms in the Missisquoi and St. Albans Bay watershed to date.
About a third of the farms visited so far did not have nutrient management plans related to applying manure to fields and making sure that it's not applied to areas that already have high levels of phosphorous in them, she said.
What's concerning is many of the problems need structural fixes that can be costly, such as constructing an entirely new manure pit because the old one is not meeting state standards, she said.
A USDA cost-share program will cover an average of 75 percent of the project and the Agriculture Agency can get that up to 85 percent in some cases but the farmer's share can be significant.
"It becomes making a big decision for some of these farms. If you don't have someone to pass it down to, are you going to make this investment?" DiPietro said.
Daniel Fortin's two sons help on the family's dairy farm and maple syrup business in Swanton. With a USDA grant he added fencing to keep cows away from parts of the Carman Brook which will allow trees to grow and cool the water so other species can survive. This year, he bought $40,000 worth of minimum till equipment to cut down on erosion. He knows he will soon have to plant corn farther away from a ditch because the state says it could lead to runoff problems.
He worries the new rules will force some farms to go out of business.
"It just takes time. It's the old farms — it's the old infrastructure and it costs money," at a time when milk prices are terrible, he said.
The state says 40 percent of the phosphorous flowing into Lake Champlain comes from farms, the rest comes from roads, parking lots and discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants. That has farmers like Fortin on the defensive, saying they're being made out to be the bad guys when more people, houses, roads, and impervious surfaces are also contributing to the problem.
"Everybody's blaming everything on farmers," he said.
Simon Depatie, another nearby farmer, said he told the Agriculture Agency when they visited last week that they would have to put in the fencing to keep his 14 beef cattle away from a brook on his dairy farm because he has enough fencing to maintain. The agency also planned to talk with him this winter about a bigger concern — a way to collect water outside his feed bunks, he said.
He said the Agriculture Agency has some solutions to try to improve water quality but he feels it may be going a little overboard in some areas.
If the fencing becomes a big problem for him, he may get rid of the beef cattle, he said.
The new rules have farmers in Franklin County worried, he said.
"We're afraid that it's going to go really sour in a hurry," he said.