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What's A Small Farm? Ag Agency Drafts Definition

Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets is making some changes to the state's agricultural practices, and local farmers now get the chance to weigh in.

The water quality law signed this summer ordered the Agency of Agriculture to make some changes to the state’s accepted agricultural practices.

A draft of the new rules has been released. Farmers are now getting a chance to react at public hearings, and while there is funding and technical assistance available, some farmers are concerned about the cost of compliance.

Large and medium farm operations, those with more than 200 cows already need permits from the state. The new required agricultural practices, or RAPs, will apply to small farms. Part of the agency’s task was to define what a "small farm" is.

The Agency’s Laura DiPietro says the draft rules create three categories for small farms. Farms with under four acres and some laying hens or fewer than four cows will not be subject to RAPs. But they will have to follow local zoning.

“Local zoning has always had control over the structures for farms of this size, they just didn’t have control over the activities, so farming, so now they will have control over those activities as well,” she said.

Small farms with up to 10 acres and up to 19 cows must follow the RAPs. While they will fall under the regulatory authority of the Ag Agency, they won’t have to be certified. Farms of over 10 acres and between 20 and 199 cows will have to self-certify and follow RAPs.

The rules don’t just apply to dairy operations; all other farms will be fall under the rules.

At the public meeting in Middlebury, Vicky Smith said small horse farms, like hers, are facing a lot of expensive upgrades that she never saw coming.

“I think the ag department doesn’t do anywhere near enough to keep in communication with the equine industry. You’ve got basically a 'gotcha' for people who have six to 10 horses,” she said.

Credit Melody Bodette / VPR
Farmers listen at a public meeting Middlebury on Vermont's new required agricultural practices for farms of different sizes.

Brian Kemp of the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition said he supports the agency’s goals, and recognizes that small farms have to be included, but he’s worried about a one size fits all approach.

“We do need to figure out a plan of how we can have some flexibility because as you know one size fits all will not work everywhere,” Kemp said.

All farms are facing changes to the manure application standards and the winter spreading ban. There are also requirements for keeping livestock out of waterways and preserving buffer widths near streams and ditches. Cropland in flood zones will have to be planted with cover crops.

And DiPietro of the Ag Agency says there will be continued enforcement to existing rules, like no direct discharges into water sources.

"We do need to figure out a plan of how we can have some flexibility because as you know one size fits all will not work everywhere." - Brian Kemp, Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition

“The scary part is we still see these kind of activities today. When you think, gosh I’ve been doing all this work, why aren’t things getting better? The reality is not everybody is doing this work,” she said.

For the first time, certified small farmers, as well as medium and large farm operators would be required to have four hours of training every five years.

Certified small farms would have to be inspected every 10 years and would have to notify the agency of change in ownership. Large and medium farms will also have to pay annual permit fees of $1,500 and $2,500.

Customer manure application companies would also have to make sure their employees are trained and certified.

The Agency of Agriculture is holding more public meetings and taking comments on the draft rules until Dec. 18.

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.
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