MONTPELIER — Backed by $7 million in federal funds, Vermont will begin paying farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus they release into the watershed.
The grant money comes to the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets via the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. The program itself is dubbed the Vermont Pay-for-Phosphorus Program and is aimed at lowering the amount of phosphorus runoff from farms into the watersheds.
“This program is about performance,” said Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts at a remote Thursday news conference. “Our farmers perform every day, they feed us, they take care of their land, keeping it open and in production. Now it’s our turn to pay for that performance with a fresh perspective and building on existing water-quality programs.”
He said farmers were responsible for 97% of the reduction of phosphorus into the Lake Champlain basin in 2019.
“We all know we can do lower, we can do more,” he said. “I encourage all farmers in every corner of our state to take a look at this new, innovative program. It could improve your bottom line, and it could improve the environment.”
The five-year program will begin in January, according to Ryan Patch, deputy director of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Water Quality Division. New digital tools will be used to estimate how much phosphorus is coming off an agricultural field, which can be compared to total maximum daily loads (TMDL) established for the Lake Champlain watershed. Farmers can be paid up to $4,000 per farm they own if their runoff is less than what’s required.
“Farms will need to be in good standing with the Agency of Agriculture and have up-to-date nutrient management plans that meet current standards,” said Patch, adding that the TMDL for the Lake Champlain basin will be the benchmark used regardless of where a farm is located.
Brian Kemp, a beef farmer with operations in Rutland and Addison counties, who is also president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, said he and others are excited about the program.
“This is a big step,” he said. “Farmers have been doing a lot and making a lot of improvements in water quality as Ryan and Anson said, we’re attributed 97% of the phosphorus reduction in 2019 and that’s from practices on the farm. It’s great to see the agency and others recognize what farmers are doing, and this type of program will reward farmers and encourage farmers to go above and beyond even more.”
He said he hopes it will also serve as a chance to show the public what farmers have been doing for the environment and the state.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, congratulated and thanked those who worked to get the program together. He said the grant is generous given Vermont’s size compared with other states.
“Vermonters are good stewards, and many Vermont farmers go well beyond what is required of them in managing their land to protect water quality, often at considerable cost,” he stated in a release distributed prior to the conference. “I thank NRCS for awarding this grant, which reflects exactly the innovation that we hoped to see when we included the RCPP program in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills.”
Gov. Phil Scott, in an agency release, thanked the Agency of Agriculture, its federal partners and Leahy for their work.
“Vermont’s farmers play a critical role in meeting our clean water goals,” Scott stated. “This incentive will improve water quality while also helping the bottom line on farms, which is a great example of how we move forward on our environmental and economic goals.”