Wednesday May 3, 2006

Farmers want action not research

Meeting strives to find common ground about stemming lake pollution

By NAT WORMAN | Messenger Correspondent

SWANTON –  Farmers’ Watershed Alliance leader Roger Rainville told state officials here Monday, including the governor, that the state should be paying greater attention to the needs and wishes of farmers in the Missisquoi Bay watershed.

“We’re going to put critical dollars in the most critical areas of our businesses and these are the critical areas,” he said, speaking of alliance efforts to improve Lake Champlain water quality at a time when the economy isn’t favoring such investment by dairy operators.

By meeting’s end, Louise Calderwood, Vermont deputy secretary of agriculture, and alliance members had agreed to set up a council through which the department would more directly assist individual farmers, while working with the alliance.

Called by the Lake Champlain Citizen’s Advisory Committee and moderated by its chair, Roland (Buzz) Hoerr, the meeting attracted fewer farmers but generated more heat than the last session in early April. It was then that farmers began their aggressive campaign to tell government officials what they need to effectively take part in the fight to reduce phosphorous pollution of Vermont waterways.

Jan Peterson, advisory committee vice chair, spurred the most rousing applause of the evening when she asked that Vermont consumers pay a price for milk that fairly compensates farmers for their labor, investment, and the cost of phosphorous reduction. She even suggested an added tax.

“When I drink milk, or I eat vegetables, I should be paying that expense,” she said. “The rest of the business community doesn’t work this way. Prices go up, things go up, and the consumer pays for them.”

St. Albans Cooperative Creamery General Manager Leon Berthiaume brought up the financial squeeze dairy farmers are feeling.

He laid the cost/price squeeze squarely on the table. He said that in April, seven dairy operations had decided to stop milking cows, adding that it may be as late as 2007 before the price for milk will turn around while costs, especially fuel, continue to climb. Meantime, farmers are being asked to put money into phosphorous control, a prohibitive cost with prices so low, even though cost share will rise to 80 percent.

Noting that a 100 pounds of milk equals 11.6 gallons, Berthiaume said that between 2004 and 2006, the price per gallon had dropped from $1.37 to $1.12. That means, he said, that a 100-cow farm producing 232 gallons of milk experienced a loss of income of $46,000 to $47,000.

But there is more.

Add increases in costs and “we are looking at, on that 100-cow farm, overall margins reduced by $70,000,” said the co-op official. In addition, Berthiaume said, the yearly health insurance policy has increased from $7,000 a year to $12,000.

“My milk check in April was $12.30 cents a hundredweight, and in 1980, it was $12.64,” dairyman Dick Longway said.

At the center of the discussion Monday was the $100,000 allotment, now in a state Senate committee that would go straight to the alliance.

According to Rainville, if approved that money would hire an agronomist and launch an aggressive campaign to cut down phosphorous pollution on at least 50 farms within the next 12 months.

The evening’s discussion, involving some 40 people, and farmers who jointly own about 10,000 cows, took place under the shadow of Gov. Jim Douglas’ Clean and Clear Act. Appropriations from that program will reach $103 million by 2009, about $50 million of which has already been spent.

The governor was here to complain that the Senate had just cut $500,000 from that campaign. He asked farmers to use their influence to restore the money, so that the goal of an acceptable phosphorous content in Lake Champlain could be reached by 2009.

The governor finished to polite applause as farmers turned to the business of the meeting: getting the $100,000 so that the alliance can begin its program immediately. That effort is in line with the group’s constant complaint that too much Clean and Clear money has gone into research, not enough into implementation.

“There’s a barnyard that was built back in the Eighties with USDA money. One of the things they did back then was to make sure the manure got to the manure pit. But the rainwater ends up in the ditch,” said dairyman Heath Mcallister, of Swanton. “When it’s raining like heck, the ditch is 50, 60 feet away, the water doesn’t slow down.”

Mcallister said the farmer involved would like to take care of the problem, but he can’t afford it, though the other day he did “get all the cows off it.” The situation, said Mcallister, will remain as it is through the winter.

Mcallister was later congratulated for his candor during a meeting in which self-disclosure of farm problems was stressed. In fact, that stance is central to the alliance’s plan to put their agronomist on a farm, have him or her assess the problems, then do something about them.

In an interview after the meeting, however, Calderwood, said that this is already possible through the U.S. Conservation Service. Its people come to a farm to help farmers solve their run-off problems in the same way.

District Conservationist Kathryn Hakey of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service said, “We just signed contracts of $2.5 million with 10 farms that brings the number of farms we’re working with 50 addressing serious water quality issues, and a total of 120 contracts, all of them addressing water quality issues.”

But even with these assurances, the restlessness of the farmers grew.

Organic dairyman Earl Fournier of Swanton, said, “If you have land that is very critical in avoiding run-off, then that land should be bought by the public to have that land in a natural state that is going to control any kind of run-off, whether it’s soil, or nutrient, or phosphorous, just by the buffer it creates there. It would really reduce, in the long run, a lot of run-off that’s going into the lake.”

“There is something that people on the ground, pounding the nail or doing the work, that brings a reality to theses conversations,” said Vermont Agency of Natural Resources head Tom Torti.

“We’d rather have people come forward saying, ‘I’ve got a problem. How can I fix it? Where do I get the money?’ The idea of  having voluntary reporting, voluntary complying just makes a lot of sense.”

“There’s no question we’re ready to do something,” Rainville said. “Unfortunately, over the past years there have been some regulatory issues that have made farmers really gun shy.”

And he complained: “Unfortunately we’re always hearing, ‘Millions of dollars of research, millions of dollars of research, millions of dollars of research.’ We don’t want research. We want to actually do something. The research has been done. When you see $30 million dollars (invested in research) in St. Albans Bay over the years, I’ll bet farmers could tell you what the problem was.

“That’s why we’re frustrated. We joke about it, we laugh, but we’re being told we’re the significant contributor. But there is no significant funding coming to us. Do the study after we fix our problems and see what the phosphorous levels are.”

But Calderwood put a damper on Alliance hopes. “In funneling scarce public resources, it seemed better to hold that $100,00 in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP),” she said.

However, by the end of the meeting, she said she would discuss that matter with dairyman.

Fournier remained adamant, saying, “How many hundreds of thousands have they used so far that hasn’t stopped one single gram of phosphorous going into Lake Champlain? Money has been spent on Clean and Clear that isn’t doing what it should be doing. We want to try this. We’re not asking for ten million dollars. We’re asking for just enough to get started.”

Torti said, “A lot of the stuff that has been said tonight, is a little bit over the top, and is not giving credit where credit is due. What we said was that by 2009, the infrastructure will be there. No one has ever said we’re going to have pristine water that looks like the color of gin.”

Fournier remained confident, however, saying, “I really feel that the Farmer’s Alliance is going to provide the opportunity of going the other way” -- to get money into implementation first and research second.

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