Clara Ayer (pictured above) is back at work after being home with her now two-month-old twins. As she walks through the barn, on the land where she grew up in East Montpelier, co-workers welcome her. The herdsman who works the barn’s “maternity ward” (himself a dad of twins) gives Clara a thumbs up. She checks on the moms-to-be; they all look comfortable.
As we walk into the calf barn, she says, “I did a lot of calf chores growing up, and I loved that.” When her three-year-old was a baby, Clara said, she’d sometimes strap him into the carrier while she fed the calves. When he got to be a toddler, he’d zoom up and down the central aisle in his walker as she worked.
Clara is part of the extended family that owns Fairmont Farm. They milk 1,450 cows and crop around 4,000 acres, including 1,600 conserved acres in five towns.
Not far from the barn, the Winooski River winds its way towards Lake Champlain. Clara and her family, like other farmers interviewed for this story, have been working to support cleaner water in the river and the lake.
“We have seven kids under six in our extended family, and we want good futures for them,” explained Clara. “And, it’s way beyond the farm… We want them to grow up in a time when the land and water and resources are good quality and there’s going to be a bright future for everybody.”
Some of that clean water effort has involved VLT. “We’re now working with Fairmont Farm to protect half a mile along the Winooski River in Marshfield,” said VLT’s Britt Haselton. “The river will be allowed to meander and will be surrounded by newly planted trees and shrubs. We’re also helping them conserve land in East Montpelier where we’ll work with volunteers to plant 200 trees along a tributary.”
Fairmont Farm is working with VLT to conserve this stretch of the Winooski River.
A Complex Problem
As Vermont struggles to address phosphorus overload in the Lake Champlain, there’s been a lot of wrangling over who’s to blame when a hot stretch in July paints the waters with yet another bloom of toxic cyanobacteria.
Phosphorus, found in manure and other fertilizers, is also a naturally occurring element that binds to soil. Each particle of soil that reaches Lake Champlain—from a plowed field, an eroding streambank, a construction site, a road, your lawn—brings phosphorus. According to the EPA, 41% of the phosphorus going into the lake comes from farming, and 37% from forests and streams. Roads and development add 18%, and wastewater treatment plants contribute 4%.
The EPA gave Vermont until 2038 to reduce phosphorus entering the lake by 213 metric tons a year. In 2019, the best year yet, we reduced it by 16.4 metric tons. Almost all of that reduction came from farms, according to a Vermont Clean Water Initiative report. However, making changes for clean water on farms, such as improving manure storage or making barnyard upgrades, can cost farmers tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The current economic climate in the dairy industry adds to the challenge. In the past decade, the price paid to farmers for their milk has declined and the state’s lost one-third of its dairies. Organic milk is now subject to some of the same volatilities as conventional milk. There is more supply than demand, so distributors aren’t taking on any new farms and are cutting back how much milk they will buy from existing organic farms.
Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport uses dragline manure aeration, which injects manure directly into the soil rather than on the surface—meaning less fuel use and less soil compaction because manure tankers aren’t driven across fields.
Let’s Talk Manure
Ben Moulton and his wife, Amanda Taylor, have an organic dairy farm in Troy, where they milk 65 Holsteins. The Missisquoi crosses their land, on its way north to Canada before it re-enters Vermont and empties into Missisquoi Bay. This river is a special focus of VLT’s clean water work (see related story here
The Moultons have joined with VLT and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation to protect the natural floodplain of the Missisquoi, while also expanding wooded areas along the water and working with conservation groups to plant more trees.
The roots of trees and shrubs along a river reduce erosion and take up excess nutrients before they reach the water. Without these natural buffers, more phosphorous will reach the lake and contribute to unsafe water.
When talking with farmers about what they most wanted people to understand about farming and clean water, they all focused on one thing: manure.
“Manure is not some useless byproduct we all want to flush,” said Amanda.
“Manure is gold,” said Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport.
“Manure is the second most valuable commodity we produce on our farm along with any other farm product,” said dairy farmer and VLT trustee, John Laggis of Laggis Brothers Farm in East Hardwick. Some of John’s cow manure is used by a neighboring organic farm.
The farmers explained that manure is part of the life cycle that builds good soil, which grows good crops, which feeds good cows and makes good milk. What’s more: to waste manure is to waste time and money.
“You can directly tie how well you’re going to do financially to how well you manage your soil,” said Amanda. “It’s completely a cycle. If you don’t take care of your soils and your soils don’t grow you good crops and if you do not feed your cows well, they will not milk for you, they will not breed, they will not be healthy.”
At Blue Spruce, manure powers the methane digester (the state’s first to tie into the grid) and the solids are then used as cow bedding. Blue Spruce is looking into packaging those peat moss–like solids to sell as a soil supplement. They’re also working on a way to extract phosphorus from the manure and sell it as a separate product.
At each farm, farmers explained the water quality work they’ve been doing: new manure pits, new drainage systems and retaining walls, innovative ways to stack and store manure, different ways to inject it into the soil rather than spreading it on top, letting more trees and shrubs grow along rivers and streams, new ways of planting crops, and graveled paths for cows.
Manure is a key part of the life cycle that builds good soil, which in turn creates good crops. “[It] is the second most valuable commodity we produce on our farm,” said John Laggis, dairy farmer and VLT trustee.
It Takes a Village
VLT has increasingly been part of Vermont’s clean water efforts—supporting projects like replanting streambanks with native trees and shrubs, widening the area of these natural buffers beyond the state’s requirements, and letting a river retake its natural course to protect floodplains.
With the help of many partners, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, VLT has instituted clean-water protection measures along 87 miles of streams and rivers on farms in the Lake Champlain watershed alone.
“We can’t forget protecting these [agricultural] lands…” said Marie. “Because once they’re gone and developed, they’re really gone. And in the future, I don’t think I’m the only one that believes Vermont and the Northeast is going to be a region that is counted on for food, because we will continue to have water.”
The connection between the land, the water, and the people who steward it is purpose and a love of place. “I think that in our work here at VLT, we get to see firsthand, time and again, how much the passion farmers have for farming arises out of a stewardship ethic, and their love for the land and nature,” said Nick Richardson, VLT’s President & CEO. “It’s important to me that we tell that story and support our farm community in taking action to clean up the waters of our state.”
That passion is so clear when speaking with farmers.
Walking to the barn at 3:30 in the morning and enjoying the solitude and quiet—that’s John’s favorite part of the day as a farmer. “But I enjoy all aspects,” he says. “I enjoy the animals and I enjoy the crop work and probably one of my later but favorite loves is working in the woods.”
Marie’s on her farm because, she says, “this is my community, and this is my family.”
Care for the land is grounded in family and passed down through generations. For Ben, farming is all he ever wanted. “From the time I was a little kid, riding on the tractor with my dad, following him around,” he remembers.
“Are we independent, stubborn people? Sure,” adds Ben. “But I don’t know a farmer out there who doesn’t want to be a good steward of the land.”
Ben Moulton and Amanda Taylor, pictured above with their children, Kierstin and Preston, run an organic dairy on the Missisquoi River. They are expanding wooded areas along the river and protecting the river’s natural floodplain. Credit: Dawn Greenwood
Story written by Gaen Murphree. Photos by Kyle Gary (Clara Ayer and her children in the barn in East Montpelier, and John Laggis on his Hardwick farm), Ben Gabos (Winoowski river on farmland in Marshfield), courtesy of Blue Spruce Farm (dragline manure aeration), and by Dawn Greenwood (Ben Moulton, Amanda Taylor, and their children Kierstin and Preston).
You may find this video on clean water interesting.