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State Prepares To Add Inspection Requirements For 1,500 Small Farms

Melody Bodette
Twenty years ago, the Tudhope farm in Orwell was considered an average-sized farm. Now the 115-cow operation qualifies as a small farm, and will be among the 1,500 small farms the Agency of Agriculture will certify and inspect, if new rules are approved.

New state water quality rules could soon apply to all of Vermont's farms. The rules will cover not just dairy farms, but also other livestock operations, as well as vegetable and crop farms.

If the draft rules are approved, the Agency of Agriculture will now certify and inspect an additional 1,500 small farms, a big increase from the 170 in the current permitting program.

Miles Tudhope has run this 115-cow dairy farm in Orwell for almost 30 years. He says 20 years ago, his was an average-sized farm; now, he fits the state’s definition of a small farm. And soon, for the first time, he’ll have to be certified and inspected. He says he it will be more paperwork.

“It’s just a pain in the butt. We have a nutrient management plan, but it’s in our head. Now we’re going to have to document it,” he said.

He points to strips of corn and hay, leading to a low spot that's a seasonal waterway. The final strip is a buffer of grass, which holds soil and nutrients.

“We’ve done the Accepted Agricultural Practices for years, so I think this is just moving it toward mandatory for people that need help on some of those issues,” he said.

"We have a nutrient management plan, but it's in our head. Now we're going to have to document it." - Miles Tudhope, small dairy farmer

The Agency of Agriculture’s Laura DiPietro agrees.

“These rules have been around for 20 years and they’ve applied to everybody, even the  [people with] one chicken in the backyard, essentially," she says. "But the challenge has been the effort that the agency had in terms of resources was really focused at areas where there was larger land management. We did the medium and large farms under permit programs, and now we’re moving down toward the smaller farms.”  

Small farms have only seen an agency water quality specialist, like John Roberts, if there was a complaint. Now Roberts says they’ll count on regular inspections and annual certification of compliance. He says most farmers know about the winter manure spreading ban, but they may not know as much about the rules designed to prevent erosion and runoff.

"Our goal is to make sure [small farms] are in compliance, but our goal is also to help them get into compliance if they are not." - John Roberts, Agency of Agriculture water quality specialist

Roberts says farmers will be allowed to make improvements before enforcement action is taken.  

“Our goal is to make sure they are in compliance, but our goal is also to help them get into compliance if they are not,” he said.

Smaller farms with under 50 cows won’t need to certify, but still must follow the RAPs and will be regulated by the Agency of Agriculture. Authority over backyard livestock, such as chickens and a few horses or cows, will be given to municipalities, unless there are adverse water quality impacts.

The RAPs are not just for dairy: All livestock, vegetable and annual crops are covered.

“Some of the land management requirements would be the same across livestock operations, whether you’re managing sheep or goats or dairy cows beef cows or horses," explained Ryan Patch, of the Agency of Agriculture. "The same standards, as far as preventing erosion on stream banks to making sure your manure stacks are away from surface waters or ditches, those standards would apply."

Even with added specialists, the Agency of Agriculture acknowledges that the challenge of doing those inspections will be greater than their resources.

Vegetable farms with over 50 acres in production will be required to certify as small farms. That includes Foote Brook Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Johnson. Farmer Tony Lehouillier says he sees more water quality problems from roadside ditches and sewage treatment plants than farms, but he says farmers should play a part in reducing pollution.

“I believe if we did get those buffers along the edges of the rivers, try to keep the manure storage away from the edges, as farm as farming goes, you’re going to be reducing the majority of it,” he said.

Lehouillier was one of the first vegetable farmers to implement a nutrient management plan, and says it changed the way he manages his soil.

“It’s a real good thing for everyone to just go through the steps and to understand it. Cause if you’re just throwing down tandem loads of compost every year, you are adding so much phosphorus,” he said.

When the draft rules are finalized this fall, those 1,500 certified small farms will be inspected once every seven years. The Clean Water Fund created by the new law included money to increase the number of small farm specialists to five, but the agency acknowledges that the challenge of doing those inspections will still be greater than their resources. 

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