Vermont farmers have struggled with a federal conservation program. A new bill in Congress could help.
Produce farmer Paul Mazza gives a tour of his flood-damaged fields to state and federal officials in Essex on Monday, July 24, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Almost 18 years ago, a major flood hit Riverhill Farm in Williston, sweeping away the topsoil and laying waste to nearly 8 acres of corn crop.
Riverhill’s then-owner, the late Wright “Beattie” Clark, decided to protect his farm from future disasters by widening the riparian buffer on his property from 50 to 400 feet. When his wife Patrice Clark and daughter Cameron Clark took over the family business in 2007, they continued to allow vegetation in the buffer region to flourish to reduce runoff and improve soil health on their farm.
“The area that got taken out of production is the buffer,” Cameron Clark said. “You let nature do its job, and it will grow trees. We haven’t done anything with it since then, so basically Mother Nature has fixed our problems.”
Laura DiPeitro, at that time an agricultural water quality specialist for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, helped the Clark family get federal funding for the buffer project through the Conservation Reserve Program. Commonly known as CRP, the program was designed to help farmers afford conservation practices on their land.
During the height of this July’s catastrophic flooding, DiPeitro drove past Riverhill Farm and was thankful to find the Clarks had fared well. The soil had not eroded from the fields. Cameron Clark agreed that while the summer flooding did cause temporary silting and loss of pasture, it only took 6 to 8 weeks for the fields to grow back and be in production again.
“If all of those things hadn’t happened, I think that field would have been substantially different and significantly impacted from this recent flood event,” said DiPeitro, now the director of the water quality program at the state agriculture agency.
But most Vermont farmers have had difficulty finding financial assistance through the program.
The 2014 Federal Farm Bill deemed lands under state regulation ineligible for CRP — meaning in states like Vermont, where farm conservation practices are closely regulated, that money was almost impossible to access.
That could change with a new bill spearheaded by the state’s congressional leaders, Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt. The trio recently introduced the Building Up Farmland Frontiers for Ecological Resilience Act — the BUFFER Act — to streamline the CRP application process.
The BUFFER Act would change language in the Food Security Act of 1985 to make lands subject to tribal, state or local regulations eligible for CRP, unless the conservation project was court ordered due to noncompliance.
The proposal builds on a previous effort by the state’s congressional delegation in the 2018 Farm Bill to create a special application process for Vermont farmers. That process has been backlogged because applications need to be approved by several state agencies before being authorized on the federal level.
The BUFFER Act, said DiPeitro, “would reduce the number of pathways and number of times that the project has to get handed around and approved” for CRP funding.
Speeding along the process for farmers to obtain CRP funding is a legislative priority for Welch because, he said, conservation projects on farms will have positive environmental impacts for all of Vermont.
“In Vermont, farmers have expressed a desire to be leaders in the fight to conserve our land and environment, but bureaucracy between federal and state governments stifles that effort,” Welch said in a statement. “The federal government must better support Vermont farms and help them mitigate the impacts of climate change. Making it easier for our farmers to access federal resources is essential to protect Vermont’s environment.”
But Jennifer Byrne, manager of the White River Natural Resource Conservation District, reckons the BUFFER Act may not be comprehensive enough of a solution.
“It doesn’t address any of the persistent staff shortages and communication issues within how the state operates, so it’s not going to be a miracle fix,” said Byrne, who runs one of the regional-level agencies involved in the CRP funding process.
Districts like hers are only asked to approve conservation projects once a plan has been developed by the state agriculture agency and the federal Farm Service Agency. Byrne wishes the state would involve districts such as hers more often so projects could be more tailored to the local landscape.
“I would just love to see the Agency of Agriculture and FSA and the conservation districts all sitting at the same table and talking about this program and how it’s delivered and how it could be potentially delivered more efficiently,” said Byrne.
Byrne thinks CRP could be improved by allowing people to plant crops in their riparian buffer zones, enabling them to have a guard against floods that can also produce food. Right now farmers can’t do that. Planting a variety of species would also make buffer zones less vulnerable to natural disasters like the flooding this summer, according to Byrne.
“I think we could think about the impacts of the policy as written and really think about the future that we want to see in terms of the food systems, resiliency (and) famine protection, and really (spend time) thinking about how we can get more of our staple needs from our landscape,” said Byrne.
The impact of flooding on farmers was at the forefront of the Vermont delegation’s minds when crafting the BUFFER Act.
“Resilience and conservation are key as we build back from this summer’s floods, and I am doing everything I can to help Vermont’s farmers come back stronger,” Balint said in a statement. “Vermont farmers are on the front lines of climate change. I’m proud to partner with our senators to introduce legislation that will help cut through red tape so that farmers can better protect their farmland from flooding and erosion.”
DiPeitro said conservation projects are often too expensive for farmers already burdened by covering the cost of production on their farms, so legislative efforts like this could help.
“I’m just really hopeful that this message will get across in Washington that there are lots of regulations about buffers. We don’t want to penalize farmers for complying with regulations across this country. We want to encourage farmers to do better and to do more,” DiPeitro said.