latest-news | Vermont Farm to Food - Part 2
Taking to the skies to help prevent runoff– a helicopter took flight in Franklin County Friday morning at Pleasant Valley Farm. The mission: plant hundreds of acres of winter rye.
The plant protects the soil from eroding and keeps nutrients in the soil.
Vermont’s water pollution problems are writ large in regions of Lake Erie that provide drinking water to millions of people in Ohio.
The city of Toledo had to close off its drinking water supply to about 500,000 people for three days in 2014 because of the presence of toxic algae in the lake. Photographs in The New York Times this week showed a luminous green sheen on a portion of the lake this year — equivalent to a patch about 24 miles by 30 miles.
The algae bloom in Lake Erie is not as bad as it was three years ago, but the stinky discolored water is raising alarms in Ohio.
You’ve heard the news about honeybees. “Beepocalypse,” they’ve called it. Beemageddon. America’s honeybees are dying, putting honey production and $15 billion worth of pollinated food crops in jeopardy.
The situation has become so dire that earlier this year the White House put forth the first National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a 64-page policy framework for saving the nation’s bees, butterflies and other pollinating animals.
The trouble all began in 2006 or so, when beekeepers first began noticing mysterious die-offs. It was soon christened “colony collapse disorder,” and has been responsible for the loss of 20 to 40 percent of managed honeybee colonies each winter over the past decade.
The math says that if you lose 30 percent of your bee colonies every year for a few years, you rapidly end up with close to 0 colonies left. But get a load of this data on the number of active bee colonies in the U.S. since 1987. Pay particular attention to the period after 2006, when CCD was first documented.
As you can see, the number of honeybee colonies has actually risen since 2006, from 2.4 million to 2.7 million in 2014, according to data tracked by the USDA. The 2014 numbers, which came out earlier this year, show that the number of managed colonies — that is, commercial honey-producing bee colonies managed by human beekeepers — is now the highest it’s been in 20 years.
So if CCD is wiping out close to a third of all honeybee colonies a year, how are their numbers rising? One word: Beekeepers.
A 2012 working paper by Randal R. Tucker and Walter N. Thurman, a pair of agricultural economists, explains that seasonal die-offs have always been a part of beekeeping: they report that before CCD, American beekeepers would typically lose 14 percent of their colonies a year, on average.
So beekeepers have devised two main ways to replenish their stock. The first method involves splitting one healthy colony into two separate colonies: put half the bees into a new beehive, order them a new queen online (retail price: $25 or so), and voila: two healthy hives.
The other method involves simply buying a bunch of bees to replace the ones you lost. You can buy 3 pounds of “packaged” bees, plus a queen, for about $100 or so.
Beekeepers have been doing this sort of thing since the advent of commercial beekeeping. When CCD came along, it roughly doubled the usual annual rate of bee die-offs. But this doesn’t mean that bees are going extinct, just that beekeepers need to work a little harder to keep production up.
The price of some of that extra work will get passed on to the consumer. The average retail price of honey has roughly doubled since 2006, for instance. And Kim Kaplan, a researcher with the USDA, points out that pollination fees — the amount beekeepers charge to cart their bees around to farms and pollinate fruit and nut trees — has approximately doubled over the same period.
“It’s not the honey bees that are in danger of going extinct,” Kaplan wrote in an email, “it is the beekeepers providing pollination services because of the growing economic and management pressures. The alternative is that pollination contracts per colony have to continue to climb to make it economically sustainable for beekeepers to stay in business and provide pollination to the country’s fruit, vegetable, nut and berry crops.” We have also been importing more honey from overseas lately.
But rising prices for fruit and nuts hardly constitute the “beepocalypse” that we’ve all been worried about. Tucker and Thurman, the economists, call this a victory for the free market: “Not only was there not a failure of bee-related markets,” they conclude in their paper, “but they adapted quickly and effectively to the changes induced by the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder.”
Colchester, Vermont, August 21, 2017—Just in time for Clean Water Week in Vermont, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has promising news to report about the positive impacts to water quality in Lake Champlain thanks to conservation efforts by farmers.
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established new limits for how much phosphorus can enter Lake Champlain. USDA-NRCS is one of the agencies that has been working with farmers to implement conservation practices that protect and improve soil and water resources, and ultimately reduce phosphorus runoff.
NRCS reports that recent analysis utilizing models indicates a reduction of phosphorus runoff into the lake as a result of effective conservation efforts. NRCS State Conservationist Vicky Drew applauded farmers for their stewardship which is helping the state meet federal guidelines to clean up the lake. “This data is really a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the farmers in the Basin,” she said.
Phosphorus is a nutrient found in agricultural fertilizers, manure, sewage, and even some household cleaning products. It is a beneficial nutrient in agriculture because it is essential for plant growth. While phosphorus can increase crop production, it also serves as a threat to water quality once it reaches surface waters. Fertilizers, manure, and phosphorus bound sediments can runoff fields into nearby streams. If these streams are part of the Lake Champlain Basin, they eventually make their way through the watershed and into the lake. When high concentrations of phosphorus accumulate in a body of water, plant and algae growth accelerates, which consumes oxygen and creates “dead zones”. These “dead zones” cannot support life and as a result, fish and other aquatic life could die due to the lack of oxygen.
In an effort to help the state meet the EPA phosphorus limits, USDA-NRCS in Vermont developed a Strategic Watershed Planning Approach. This five year plan, initiated in 2015, targets the most impaired watersheds (those known to contribute heavy concentrations of agricultural phosphorus runoff to the lake). These watersheds include St. Albans Bay, Pike River, Rock River, and McKenzie Brook in Addison County. NRCS is working with state and local partners to allocate financial and technical assistance to these areas through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This Farm Bill program helps farmers install conservation practices that protect and improve soil and water quality including reduced tillage, nutrient management, cover crops, permanent seeding, buffers, and prescribed grazing. “The conservation practices installed in the Lake Champlain Basin over the last few years are already making a positive impact on soil and water health,” says Drew. “Our goal was to show measurable water quality improvement, and we are.”
The phosphorus limits set by the EPA helped guide phosphorus reduction goals set for the four targeted watersheds. Using tools developed by EPA, NRCS estimated total phosphorus reductions for the first year of the five year project. The estimated reductions can be viewed at:
Ag—it’s who we are
Vermont has a robust agricultural community that’s engaged in providing healthy food for consumers in our state and across the country. From dairy and maple, to beef and vegetable products, our farmers are the best of the best.
Our family has worked with Vermont farmers for more than 40 years, providing them with safe seed and fertilizer treatments, and doling out healthy portions of advice on best land management practices, soil testing and nutrition, and animal care.
We’ve seen a lot change over the years—new and improved seed, like GMOs that can withstand attack from insects and allow farmers to use less pesticides, less fertilizers and less land while simultaneously achieving higher yields and improving the quality of their forages.
We’ve also witnessed new and improved conservation techniques that allow our farmers to preserve the land, such as cover cropping and no till or reduced till. By using seasonal cover crops such as small grains, farmers are able to protect the soil from eroding and improve the quality of the soil—these crops are high in nitrogen which is a natural fertilizer.
Not tilling the land, or tilling it less, increases the amount of water that soaks through the soil and increases organic matter and the variety of life in the soil. This makes soil more resilient.
Right now, many farmers are starting their late summer seeding planting small grains and certain grasses. At other times of the year they’ll rotate crops on that same land. These are all practices that have developed as needs have evolved. And, along with myriad other agricultural techniques practiced by our farmers, they certainly reduce the carbon footprint.
Every year, Bourdeau Brothers, Inc. has hosted the Addison County Ag Showcase. Before it was that, it was known as our “Corn Day.” Vendors from all parts of the farming system participate and it’s always proven a great environment for the exchange of innovative ideas. We will always need those.
There are more than 800 dairy farms in Vermont. Each one represents a family who has dedicated themselves to a job that’s tough and, often not in their control thanks to the ever-changing climate. Some are organic and others aren’t. Every farm has its challenges.
For example, some have fields that get easily waterlogged and they use tile drainage to siphon off the excess water below the soil’s surface. This allows plant roots to take hold, get strong and produce high yielding, healthy crops.
Some of the state’s dairy farms have methane digesters which convert manure into electricity via a generator. The compressed and dried-out manure also serves as a good bedding alternative to wood chips for animals on the farm.
Farming is the economic backbone of this state providing thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars in business annually. What makes this state so great, are the variety of farms we have.
Unfortunately, over the years we’ve seen too many that have shut their barn doors, simply unable to make it work. As the U.S., and indeed the world population increases, supporting each other is critical.
At Bourdeau Brothers we’re grateful for the hard work that all Vermont farmers are doing. Farmers face tough odds, and we are lucky that ours are dedicated to preserving the open landscape, water quality and high quality healthy food options. They are shepherds of their land, putting best practices in place so that future generations can work and live on it.
Jacob Bourdeau is a member of the management team at Bourdeau Brothers Inc. His company provides dairy nutrition and crop management services to farmers throughout the northeast. Bourdeau is a member of the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance.
Lake Champlain is a valuable and treasured resource in Vermont. It provides drinking water, recreational opportunities and, of course, spectacular scenery. Through voluntary conservation, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has worked hand-in-hand with local producers to plan and improve soil and water management practices throughout its adjacent watersheds.
Although NRCS is just one of the many entities working in close partnership with farmers to ensure the future health of Lake Champlain, I am pleased to report that recently analyzed models indicate a reduction of phosphorus runoff into the lake as a result of these effective efforts.
This is encouraging, especially during this time of the year, when we see the impacts of polluted runoff in the form of blue-green algae blooms, which can be harmful to pets and people. This data is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the farmers in the basin. I applaud each and every one of you for going above and beyond to ensure that your farming practices are helping improve soil and water quality.
In 2015, NRCS developed a “Strategic Watershed Planning Approach.” This five year plan targets the most impaired watersheds – those known to contribute higher concentrations of agricultural phosphorus runoff to the lake. Over the past two years, we have targeted financial and technical resources to St. Albans Bay, Pike River, and Rock River in Franklin County, and McKenzie Brook in Addison County. We worked closely with our state and local conservation partners to help farmers install conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, including practices such as reduced tillage, nutrient management, cover crops, permanent seeding, buffers, and prescribed grazing.
I am thrilled we are able to use these early estimates to let farmers know their efforts are making a difference in the health of Lake Champlain. And I urge farmers in these four target areas to visit with their local NRCS office to explore the assistance available to them.
We have estimated total phosphorus reductions for the first year of the five year project, and you can see these encouraging results at http://bit.ly/VTwatersheds
We remain committed to working with Vermont’s farmers, in the basin and beyond, who are doing their part to ensure our state’s natural resources are protected. And, the recent rollout of the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is an ideal way to reward and recognize Vermont’s conservation farmers. This unique program is a partnership effort between the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, USDA-NRCS, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension.
I believe that farmers who are going above and beyond to protect and improve the natural resources on and around their farming operations should be publically recognized for their stewardship.
Our ultimate goal is to show measurable water quality improvement as a result of targeted conservation efforts, and we will continue to monitor our progress and share the impacts of conservation within the Basin. Stay tuned for an upcoming announcement on additional target watersheds. There is much more work to be done, but I am confident that the dedication and perseverance of Vermont’s farmers will help the state reach its goals, and that collectively, we can protect our beloved Lake Champlain.
Vicky M. Drew, of Georgia, is the the state conservationist with USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.