MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — As Vermont works to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution that ends up in Lake Champlain, the state wants to make sure small farms are doing their part, too.
A newly hired inspector is collecting data about small, mostly dairy farms in Franklin County, where toxic algae blooms have turned up in Missisquoi Bay, and plans to visit some of them this summer to suggest how they can reduce pollution in waterways and point them to technical and financial help to solve any problems.
"I think it's important for agencies like ours to demonstrate that, yes, there is scrutiny, but there is also assistance and education," said John Roberts, a former dairy farmer who will do the inspections. "Many of the solutions to this problem are not massive construction of storage or systems or something like that, but they're more management changes."
Some of those solutions could include changing where farmers store their manure or planting cover crops in the fall to keep nutrients and soil in place. He's already noticed some problems on his visits to more than 100 farms in Franklin County since January.
"I don't think that's going to be a shock to anybody. Some of the farmers know they've got issues," he said. "Particularly after this winter."
Moving frozen manure was a challenge for some farmers during the long winter and showed some areas that need improvement, he said. Sometimes it gets so cold — and the snow so deep — that farmers can't get their tractors out to move the manure and it ends up stacked in the wrong places, Roberts said.
Roberts has been visiting farms collecting basic information to create a database and get the word out that farmers are required to comply with the state's accepted agricultural practices aimed at conserving natural resources and reducing pollution through improved farming techniques.
Medium-sized farms with 200 or more animals or large farms with 700 or more animals are required to get a water quality permit, but the oversight and supervision of small farmers has mostly been driven by complaints, Roberts said.
As Vermont comes up with a plan to meet a revised cap on the maximum amount of phosphorus allowed in Lake Champlain, as required by federal law, a group of farmers and technical service providers has been working on recommendations to address water quality problems at farms.
"One of the things that came up amongst all these different farmers was a level-playing field because right now, small farms are regulated differently than medium and large farms are," said Laura DiPietro, the agricultural water quality policy and operations manager for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
During his visits, Roberts informs farmers that he'll return to do an inspection and to discuss his observations. He will then write a report and ask the farmer to respond within 30 days with a plan for fixing any problems. Any farmer who doesn't comply could face fines, but "there are quite a few hurdles that have to be crossed before then," he said.
Ralph McNall, president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery Inc., which includes 500 farms, says he has no problem with the inspections as long as the inspector is reasonable and doesn't ask the farmers to do something unaffordable.
"Personally, I know we have to do something," said McNall, who is also a dairy farmer with 200 cows in Fairfax.
The vast majority of farmers have been receptive to Roberts' visits and request for information, albeit some may just be resigned to it, Roberts said.
"You get the farmer who sort of says, 'I wish I could be left alone to just farm,'" Roberts said. "But I think all of them know that those days no longer exist."