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Small Farms Face New Rules To Clean Up Waterways

Kathleen Masterson
Bill and Rachel Orr run a family dairy farm with about 130 cows in Orwell. About half the manure produced in Vermont comes from small farms, which are now facing new rules for reducing manure and nutrient runoff.

About 40 percent of the nutrients that run off into Lake Champlain come from farms. But surprisingly, about half that manure produced in the state actually comes from small farms. In the case of dairies, that’s defined as operations with fewer than 200 cows.

There are roughly 7,000 small farms in the state, yet small farms are not regularly inspected – nor do they currently have to register with the state.

That’s all going to change as a part of Vermont’s Clean Water Act passed earlier this year to address Champlain's persistent pollution problems. 

I think small farms do face a lot of challenges in terms of the resources to be able to implement some of the practices,” says Laura DiPietro, the agricultural resource management deputy director at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.  

“A lot of these small firms are on older infrastructure as far as the barns and buildings, and so bringing up some of these facilities to be able to comply with today's standards is going to be challenging from an engineering perspective – and potentially cost perspective.”

DiPietro says there are resources to help farmers make the changes necessary to reduce manure and other nutrient runoff.

But some farms are already implementing changes to reduce their runoff, even ahead of the new law.

Bill Orr and his daughter, Rachel, run a small dairy farm in Orwell, with roughly 100 milking cows.

“So this year, our two main projects: we’re building bunks out back and animal housing, both of which improve water quality,” says Rachel Orr.

“We used to pile feed on the ground, so all the runoff from the feed went wherever it decided to go.”

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Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
The Orrs dairy farm has more than 100 Holsteins, and is the Mackenzie Brook watershed, one of the top four priorities identified by the state for reducing phosphorous runoff. The liquid waste and manure in the barn gets scraped up and stored in an outdoor manure pit to prevent leaching into soil and water.

The Orrs recently constructed two new bunkers, 60-foot wide concrete structures to store grain feed so it doesn’t leach nutrients into the soil. The bunkers are intentionally built to slope southward so if the Orrs need to add a catch basin later, they can easily do so. 

The Orr’s farm is in the Mackenzie Brook watershed, one of the top four priorities identified by the state for reducing phosphorous runoff. The other priority watersheds include Pike River that flows in Lake Carmi; Rock River (Highgate area), and St. Albans Bay. 

These areas will be given priority for the majority of the funds to help with clean-up projects over the next five years, says Vicky M. Drew with the Vermont Natural Resources Conservation Service. The amount Vermont receives each year is subject to the annual appropriations process in Congress, she says, but "it is likely that we will be allocating $1 million to $1.5 million in each of the four priority watersheds."  

Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
The Orrs will pile cattle feed into these new concrete bunkers to keep nitrates from leaching into the soil and water.

The Orrs already manage manure on their property with an outdoor manure pit, and by scraping up liquid waste and manure in the barn so it doesn’t run off downhill. But the Orr farm still has cows outdoors on pasture during the winter, when manure can flow over snow and ice directly into waterways.

That’s why the Orr’s are constructing a new barn to house cattle during the winter.

First time inspections for many small farms

Rachel recently joined the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition. It’s one of two organizations in the state formed by farmers to address water issues. This year she and her dad are making some significant changes, even before the new rules affecting small farmers go into effect in 2017.

But many farmers may have to make serious changes, says Kirsten Workman, an Agronomy Specialist with University of Vermont Extension service. 

The new Required Agriculture Practices will mandate that small farms fence cattle out of waterways, which might mean installing a pump to bring water to the animals. More farmers will have to manage manure so rain doesn’t wash it into waterways. Some may need to build manure pits or expand existing ones.  

“There’s farms with similar numbers of cows that are going to have to spend $500,000. I mean it might not all come out of their own pocket, but even when you have to come up with 10, 20 percent of that, that’s time to take a deep breath,” says Workman.

A big part of “figuring this out” will involve another new effort small farmers will soon be required to do: writing a nutrient management plan. Medium and large farms are already required to file these plans with the state, but small farmers may never have measured their hill slopes or tested their soil nutrient levels to figure out how much manure they can safely apply without it affecting water quality.

Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
Rachel Orr checks on the milking cows munching hay in the barn. "We used to pile feed on the ground, so all the runoff from the feed went wherever it decided to go," she says.


Bill and Rachel Orr weren’t intimidated to face writing a nutrient management plan for the first time.

“I spoke with an NRCS rep, and he told me our farm should be fine,” says Bill Orr.

“You just have to have your paperwork behind you, because at some point I guess they’ll be inspectors,” Orr says.  “It’s too bad you have to go that route, but the way the world is I guess.”

Managing nutrients saves farms money

But writing a nutrient management plan can actually help farmers save money, says Brian Kemp, president of the Champlain valley Farmer Coalition.

He has been working with the Orrs as they invest in improvements on their farm. (08)

“A nutrient management plan by far makes any farmer a better crop manager, there’s no doubt,” he says.

Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
Rachel Orr found a nutrient management plan from 1971 in the barn. The Orrs will write a current plan this winter to prepare for having to file with the state.

Kemp says that’s because farmers can keep track of which fields need how much fertilizer — instead of just buying a default per acre amount from a fertilizer salesperson. 

“Commercial fertilizer salesmen are salesmen, and they like to give you a blanket package, like you need X amount per acre, and they just want to do that,” says Kemp. “Bill and Rachel will be able to say, ‘No, this field fertilizer is really high — maybe we can cut back 50 pounds of nitrogen this year.’”

Kemps says that’s going to save farmers money and they’re still going to have enough fertilizer in the ground to grow their crops.

A social change

But Kemp says the most important thing is that small farmers come out to upcoming public input sessions with the as the rules are being finalized.

“I guess I have the mentality if you don’t speak up, then don’t complain later,” says Kemp.

“I really urge all farmers to come forth. Nobody’s pointing the finger, nobody’s going to come into your farm and say, you know, you got leachate running out of that bunk, you’re done today if you don’t fix this tomorrow.”

“This is a social change we’re trying to make, and without farmers engaging in that government alone can’t do it,” agrees DiPietro.

Credit NRCS (data) / Taylor Dobbs (visualization)
In recent years, more farmers have been applying for assistance to construct water quality improvement projects on their farms.

In her position with the Agency of Agriculture, she says she finds that the majority of the time farmers are willing to work with the state to fix the problem. She points out that small farms have always been subject to state farm rules, “however we didn't have the resources to systematically inspect them.”

The new “required agriculture practices” will be written by next summer, and small farm inspections are set to begin in 2017. In the meantime, the Agency of Agriculture wants to work on that social change — it’s asking for public feedback in meetings late this fall and early winter.

Follow VPR News' reporting on the cleanup of Lake Champlain in our ongoing reporting series Downstream.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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