Hearing offers a new look at Lake Carmi crisis

Lake Carmi is not just about the cows. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
Lake Carmi has been described more than once this legislative session as the poster child for Vermont’s water pollution problem. The House went so far in March as to approve a bill declaring Carmi “a lake in crisis” — overburdened by phosphorus, most of the blame laid on farms and farmers.
On Thursday the farmers of the Lake Carmi watershed had a chance to have their say. They appeared before a mix of Senate and House committee members at the urging of Heather Darby, a University of Vermont Extension agronomist and soils specialist, who had some news of her own to impart.
The 13 farms in the watershed, she told the packed hearing room, are not the source of current pollution of the lake. In fact, out of a total of about 7,500 acres of land in the watershed, a fraction is considered considered agricultural — at 1,400 acres, agricultural land around Lake Carmi is half what it was a decade ago. Most of the land is used for hay. And there are no dairy cows at all — just 480 heifers and 50 grass-fed black angus for beef.
Darby told lawmakers she decided to take a closer look at the Lake Carmi watershed because of the attention it was getting. Like everyone else, she said, all she seemed to be hearing was “It’s a mess up there!” So she and a colleague spent three weeks meeting with every farmer with land fully or partially in the watershed, reviewing their agricultural practices in detail.
“As the weeks went by, a very different story began to unfold,” Darby said. “That’s why I’m here today.”
Lake Carmi has been under a federal order since 2008 to reduce the levels of phosphorus in the water. The Environmental Protection Agency order contains a reference to farms contributing 85 percent of the lake phosphorus, with camps and other sources contributing seven percent.
Darby said the EPA order was out of date.
Her presentation, she said, reflected “a current view of the agricultural land in the Lake Carmi watershed, as given to us by the people who farm in the Lake Carmi watershed. . . Not 10 years ago, not 8 years ago, not even 2 years ago, but currently.”
The watershed is not the wild west of Vermont agriculture, she said. Nearly all of the agricultural land in the watershed, 88 percent, is under a nutrient management plan. The phosphorus in the soil tests at low, to medium, to optimum, she said, almost none is at a level that would be regarded as high. Phosphorus “loading,” a build up of soil phosphorus that occurs when growing crops can’t keep up with the amount being put on the land, is “not happening,” she said.
Darby’s study of farm and land management practices in the Lake Carmi watershed included assessing the risk of loss of phosphorus due to erosion and soil degradation–this is the phosphorus that tends to end up in surrounding waters. The risk of phosphorus loss in the fields around Lake Carmi, she said, was mostly low to medium, with only 13 percent, all hayfields, considered high risk.
“As an agronomist, looking at everything currently being done in the watershed,” she said. “There is only one additional field practice that I think would make a significant difference,” which would be to stop the phosphorus loss from hayfields. This would require injecting manure into the ground, she said. “And every every farmer has agreed to put this practice in place, with proper equipment and resources. . . This is going to take some time to figure out, but there was not one person not willing to do that.”
“The point is there’s more going on than you think, than can even be told you by your own agencies,” Darby said. “Because they don’t know. . . They’re still talking about what was eight years ago. It’s totally different now.”
The hearing was divided between Darby’s presentation and nearly an hour of testimony from the farmers themselves. Many described in detail their own agricultural practices, methane digesters and manure separators installed, buffers planted, crops rotated, measures taken to control runoff.
“I never thought that I would be standing before the public explaining why we were doing this work,” said Chris Wagner. “I simply thought it was important to do it.”
Farmers also described being bullied and blamed for what they were doing to Vermont’s landscape and its waters, and how they feared for the future of their industry.
Denna Benjamin, who with her husband and five children raises goats and heifers and youngstock, described a white van that was a “frequent sighting, taking pictures, driving slowly by and one time seen in our yard, at our manure pit… My calf feeder would call me saying “that van is here again,” completely unnerved and scared as she was alone at the farm.”
Every one of the farmers at the hearing, who stopped work and traveled an hour and a half to testify, she said, did so to show lawmakers “We are not faceless. We have families and farms that depends on our land, and we take our responsibility seriously…
“Standing before you today are proactive and engaged farmers heading in the right direction. The required agricultural practices are in effect and we are complying…
“The lake did not get this way overnight, nor will it get fixed overnight. I urge you to look at the current data, to look at what our farms are doing, to look at the bigger picture.”
“Our story hasn’t been factually told,” said 17 year old Chandra Stanley simply. “Please base your decisions on true and complete facts.”
Sen. Robert “Bobby” Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, offered a number of interjections in the course of the two hour hearing blaming “the newspapers” and other media for misinterpretations and misinformation. There were a few eruptions in the room of “fake news.”
“That’s certainly something different than what you read in the papers and what you hear out on the sidewalks,” Starr said following Benjamin’s testimony. “It’s really important to hear from you — the people working on our land and keeping Vermont what it is.”
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, in an interview after the hearing said he was glad to hear the testimony of the farmers. He said he found it odd that Darby — whose presentation was taken in part from the farmers’ own nutrient management plans — appeared to support those who believe the plans should be privileged information.
Nutrient management plans for the state’s largest farms are public information. Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, this week amended a bill S.276 to include language barring public review of the documents.
Campion noted that Darby’s overwhelmingly positive view of farm practices was in contrast to recent testimony by Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore, who told the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, on which Campion sits, that water quality across Vermont continues to decline.
Sen. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, praised Franklin County farmers for their testimony.
“I thought they did a very good job,” Branagan said. “They spoke from the heart… In addition to all they have gone through, with the low prices and the economic troubles farmers everywhere in the country are facing right now, they’re being unfairly attacked because of people who don’t really understand what dairy is all about.”
“We’ve got a huge industry here that, if we lose it, our state will be sunk economically,” Branagan said. “We’ll have a depression here.”
A UVM economist has estimated that in fact farming makes up between one and two percent of Vermont’s economy, though there is more to farming in Vermont than the bottom line.
Vermonters must “do whatever we can to protect the Vermont dairy industry,” Branagan said.
Starr, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said the hearing affirmed his belief that farmers are highly motivated not to pollute their own land or public waterways.
“A farm without good water, without good land, isn’t worth a nickel,” Starr said. “I’ll tell you, there isn’t a farmer in Vermont that I know of that wants to have their land ruined and wants to pollute the water, because they know how important that is to their well-being.”
“We should be really proud of the way our farmers take care of their farms,” Starr said. “I think it’s time they get credit for all the good things they’re doing, instead of just some bad things people think they’re doing.”
Sen. Chris Bray, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said that while he appreciated the presentation, he would like still more information.
Long-time Franklin residents described Lake Carmi last year as being in the worst condition they’ve ever seen. A cyanobacteria bloom brought on by excess phosphorus lasted well into the fall, and prompted health department warnings. Bray said he’d have been pleased to hear Darby’s thoughts on the state of the lake.
“She basically had a ‘good-news’ story, but meanwhile the lake is still in intolerably bad condition for anyone who lives there,” Bray said.
“Overall we still have declining water quality, across the state, and that is not something any Vermonter should have to put up with.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Hearing offers a new look at Lake Carmi crisis.