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Vermont opens up 'Pay For Phosphorous' program to reward farmers for environmental stewardship

A photo of green hills leading into blue mountains with small houses and roads in the distance
Elodie Reed
VPR File
A summer view of farm fields in Richford. A new state program will reward farmers going above and beyond requirements for reducing phosphorous runoff.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is rolling out a new program that will pay farmers for reducing the amount of phosphorous lost from their fields.

Funded through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Pay For Phosphorous Program will begin this year. Vermont farmers are already requiredby the state and the federal government to reduce the impact of their activities on local watersheds, but this program will reward them for going beyond those requirements.

The program would compensate Vermont farmers for trapping phosphorous on their land at a rate of $100 per pound.

Farmers often fertilize their fields with manure, which contains phosphorus. When it rains or snow melts, the nutrient can be picked up and carried into nearby waterways. Phosphorus loading into streams, rivers and lakes is linked to cyanobacteria — or blue-green algae — blooms, which can be toxic to humans and animals. Agriculture is responsible for 38% of nutrient loading in Vermont waters, although it is also the sector that contributes nearly all of the phosphorous reductions the state as achieved to date.

While Vermont is required by law to improve water quality in Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog, among other watersheds, the agency says it hopes this program will accelerate progress, by making it economically viable for more farms to ramp up their practices.

More from VPR: Vermont just adopted a Climate Action Plan. Here’s how it says we should reduce emissions.

Ryan Patch, deputy director of water quality at the agency, says the way the program is set up some farmers will get paid for past work.

"If their management is already meeting and exceeding that threshold, all those additional pounds of phosphorous would be eligible for payment this year," Patch said. "And so in some ways, it could reward those that are already exemplary stewards."

The state will use a combination of modeling and farm visits to make sure the reductions are being delivered.

The agency says this is the state's first program to compensate farms based on the outcome of their management practices.

It is also something of a test balloon, part of a larger effort in the state to create “payment for ecosystem services”programs. These would pay farmers for stewarding — on private property — the natural benefits a healthy landscape provides, including carbon and stormwater storage and resilient, productive soil.

Brian Kemp manages the Mountain Meadows organic beef farm in Sudbury and Orwell, and is a member the state's Payment For Ecosystems and Soil Health Working Group. He says the agency’s new program is a good starting point.

“I think they knew that the payment for ecosystem services was going to take time, it was going to be complex and complicated to develop," Kemp said. "And this was an easy way to start getting money into farmers hands for — that are already reducing phosphorus.”

According to the Agriculture Agency, farms that enroll can be eligible an initial payment of up to $4,000, and then up to $50,000 over the course of 2022.

"$50,000 is some real money," Kemp said. "You know, I mean, in our situation on our farm, that can pay a couple months of grain bills."

The deadline to apply for the program is Jan. 31.

A photo showing dairy cows on a grassy hill leading up to a barn and a silo.
Beaulieu Farm in Ryegate is among the farms interested in participating in the Agency of Agriculture's new Vermont Pay For Phosphorous Program.

Ryegate dairy farmer Adam Beaulieu, learned about the Vermont Pay For Phosphorous Program when VPR got in touch, but he said he's interested.

“I guess they're almost essentially paying us for our time," he said. "And it by far is an incentive to try to make everything better.”

He and his wife Melissa milk about 45 cows and manage just under 100 acres. With their farm on a hill and a nearby brook that feeds into the Wells River, Adam says they want to be careful about runoff.

"Anything to improve the environment, by far we try to participate in programs or do better ourselves so that we don't cause more issues for the future," he said.

Elena Mihaly is vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation's Vermont office. The environmental advocacy organization, along with Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Lake Champlain Committee, in November 2021, asked the agency of agriculture to revisit Vermont's existing clean water requirements for farms.

The organizations cited recent findings of the new Vermont Climate Assessment, which found Vermont is getting warmer and wetter faster than scientists previously thought. Climate change is expected to make severe rain events happen more frequently. And Vermontalready sees, on average, 21% more precipitation than it did in 1900. That means water quality problems caused by runoff could get worse in the future.

Mihaly said, in general, the organization supports the program as it is designed.

"We appreciate that it only pays for voluntary stewardship that goes above and beyond farms' regulatorily-required levels of stewardship under the [total maximum daily load]," she said in an email last week.

Mihaly said the Conservation Law Foundation will be interested to see how many farms participate.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet digital producer Elodie Reed@elodie_reed or reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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