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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Vt. Small Farms Under Scrutiny For Pollution Runoff

Werner Stoffberg
If you have four horses, you have a small farm, says John Roberts of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. In an effort to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, the state is beginning to enforce runoff regulations on smaller scale operations.

The state of Vermont is working to reduce phosphorus pollution in the Lake Champlain watershed.

A lot of the focus has been on farms, and now the state is turning attention to smaller scale agriculture, and that means owners of much smaller parcels of land will also have to react to the regulations already on the books.

John Roberts has been driving the back roads of Franklin County, looking for sites that may be a problem. Roberts was recently hired as the Small Farm Operation Coordinator for the state Agency of Agriculture. He took the position after spending 40 years as a dairy farmer.

He said there’s still a lot of discussion about the definition of a small farm.

“Technically, a small farm sort of starts at four horses, but under the rules it also says there can be no discharge into the state’s waters, streams or off your property. So if someone has one horse, one pig, whatever, I won’t go down as far as one chicken, and that animal happens to be located in a situation that is environmentally-compromising, you could be breaking the environmental rules,” he explained.

If someone has one horse, one pig, whatever ... and that animal happens to be located in a situation that is environmentally-compromising, you could be breaking the environmental rules. - John Roberts, Vermont Agency of Agriculture

Roberts has been doing a survey and stopping at properties that he sees as a farm, and looking for potential water pollution issues. His focus when meeting with property owners is primarily educational, and some of the people he’s met with don’t consider themselves farmers.

“I am stopping at some places and surprising people. Luckily, I will say that I have not been welcomed with open arms, but people have been very cooperative,” he said. “Farmers who do this for a living, they fully know their responsibility to correct any possible problems. The main part of my work isn’t just saying ‘don’t do that,’ it is saying ‘this might be an issue. Let’s figure out a way to correct that before it becomes an issue.'”

Roberts said the vast majority of solutions aren’t expensive infrastructure. Often it’s a simple as building a fence to keep animals out of streams, or moving an existing fence. But the pay-off to the waterways in reduced phosphorus runoff can be huge. Roberts said the reality is that everyone must be concerned and responsive to make a difference.

“Two llamas, even five or six beef cows are very unlikely to be the source of major problems. But I’ve seen people who have a few horses in their backyard, and the backyard is totally denuded of grass cover, so there’s a dirt surface there. Well, when it rains, that dirt moves,” Roberts said, and that phosphorus enters the water ways. “I do think the major focus still has to be on the large areas of corn ground that we grow in the state. It’s necessary and has an important role to play in preventing us from importing a lot of grain.” Roberts said that imported grain brings phosphorus with it.

He said 40 to 60 percent of the phosphorus runoff is from farms, and large farms have been the focus of attention for some time. Farms with over 200 cows are required to get water quality permits. Small farms are subject to the same regulation, but now the state is trying to be more proactive in working with small farms rather than focusing on complaints.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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