Farmers in Vermont’s Pike and Rock River Watersheds Make a Difference with Conservation
by Amy Overstreet, NRCS (Originally Published in the St Albans Messenger)
On his 360-acre dairy farm between Highgate and Franklin, Wayne Fiske knows that conservation works. Not only for the benefit and protection of the natural resources surrounding his farm, but also for his bottom line. At Windfall Acres along Vermont’s Rock River, conservation practices like strip cropping, crop rotation, cover crops and no-till, riparian buffers and grassed waterways, and forage and biomass plantings dot the landscape. Since 2005, nutrient management has helped him improve productivity while protecting the environment. Wayne and his wife Nancy are proud of their sustainably managed dairy farm in Vermont’s Rock River Watershed. “Strip cropping has been a standard practice here for at least 30 years, and it’s key to our success,” says Fiske. He explained that it slows the water running across exposed soil which is then filtered by an adjacent strip of vegetation. “We don’t want to lose our topsoil.” He says that farmers in his watershed, and beyond, are seeing the benefits of conservation practices like cover crops and no-till. “It really does save time and money.”
Close by in neighboring Pike River Watershed, Mike and Denna Benjamin manage a herd of 550 dairy cows and crops 1,000 in East Franklin. At Riverview Farm, conservation practices like a waste storage facility and bio-digester, crop rotation, residue and tillage management, cover cropping, nutrient management, and an access road for livestock are protecting soil and water quality. The farm’s proximity to Lake Carmi is one of the reasons that the Benjamin’s are committed to managing their resources with conservation in mind. Farmers like Mike and Denna are doing everything they can to minimize their impact. Mike says water quality is important to them. “My parents bought this farm in 1943,” he explained. They were early adopters, installing a manure pit in the early 1980’s for improved utilization of nutrients. A few years ago, they started practicing manure injection. This technology helps reduce air pollution and allows for more precise application of manure to fields which reduces harmful runoff into nearby waterbodies.
Both farmers worked with the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), led by Advisory Board Chair Dr. Kent Henderson. Through an agreement with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, FNLC worked with NRCS and other partners in the Pike and Rock River Watersheds to ramp up conservation implementation. The Benjamin and Fiske families were early adopters of conservation, and are both involved in their local watershed action groups. Henderson says he has seen a shift in these watersheds, even before the Required Agricultural Practices (RAP’s) implemented by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. A drive through both watersheds reveals a landscape where conservation practices are abundant. “There is real momentum growing,” says Henderson.
Through the FNLC agreement with NRCS, an outreach and education plan was initiated in both watersheds to ensure that farmers were aware of the programs and services available to them, including NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This Farm Bill program helps farmers install conservation practices that protect and improve soil and water quality including reduced tillage, nutrient management, cover crops, permanent seeding, buffers, and prescribed grazing.
The agreement between FNLC and NRCS is part of NRCS’ five year strategic watershed plan to target watersheds with the highest phosphorus loads. These include St. Albans Bay, Pike River, Rock River, and McKenzie Brook in Addison County. Working with state and local partners, NRCS allocated financial and technical assistance to these areas through EQIP. The conservation practices installed in the Lake Champlain Basin over the last few years are already making a positive, and measurable, impact on soil and water health,” report Vermont NRCS State Conservationist Vicky Drew. This summer, NRCS published promising news about the results of the conservation work implemented in these areas, thanks to the efforts of dedicated farmers. In the targeted watersheds, models were used to estimate the effects of conservation practice implementation. “Data for the Pike and Rock River watersheds indicates a projected reduction of phosphorus runoff to both Lake Champlain and improvement was also indicated in Lake Carmi as well,” explained VT NRCS Water Quality Specialist Kip Potter.
Because of the use of conservation practices, the goal of reducing phosphorus in both Pike and Rock River watersheds is being accomplished. In the Pike Watershed, the amount of cover crops planted and the amount of reduced tillage used increased significantly in 2016. The amount of nutrient management and permanent seeding also increased in the watershed. In the Rock River Watershed, the amount of cover crops planted and use of reduced tillage increased in 2016 as well.
Both Fiske and Benjamin admit that farming has its challenges, particularly the drop in milk prices. But, their motivations for farming, and sticking with it, run deep. “I get to watch the sunrises, and the sunsets, see the deer, and look out across the land and see the results of our work. That’s gratifying.” Benjamin says, “I was born and brought up in it. It’s in your blood. That’s why you do it.”
Thanks to these farmers for their commitment and stewardship which is protecting and improving soil and water quality in the Pike and Rock River Watersheds and beyond.