My last two columns discussed changes in Vermont agriculture and the challenges faced by dairy farms. If I left you with a pessimistic vision of agriculture in Vermont, this month’s column may change that. I think the future is bright for farming in this state, but not necessarily the kind of farming we’re used to.
Vermont has some advantages. In a thirsty world, we have abundant water. Our fields are close to over 60 million hungry and thirsty urbanites. Our soils and climate grow grass extremely well. And we are Vermont, with a brand that’s hard to beat.
Precipitation has increased due to climate change and promises to continue increasing. We worry that it’s coming in more intense bursts, which is true, and that we may have more drought despite the overall increase.
Water is essential to agriculture, and Vermont is well positioned to replace production lost in parts of the country where water is no longer available. California, where vegetables are grown on 1.2 million acres, supplies nearly half the fruit, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States. Yet without irrigation, nearly all those acres would revert to the desert that greeted early European settlers. In the last few years over 500,000 acres (of the 25 million total agricultural acres) were fallowed (no crops grown) because of a lack of water.
The water for California’s farms comes at a high price and is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. While many of our veggie farmers in Vermont also irrigate, that involves a few thousand dollars in pumps and pipe and usually consists of sucking a little water from a river. Nearly all of California’s water comes from far away mountains, carried over long distances in a multi-billion dollar canal system. That finite resource has reached its limit, urban demand is siphoning off an increasing share, and the California drought has made finding new sources critical. California just signed an agreement with Israel for joint studies on water in agriculture. Israel gets 40 percent of its fresh water from desalinization plants extracting water from the sea. Those plants are extremely expensive and rely on very cheap electricity.
This means we in the northeast should be ready to ramp up production. In 2017, Vermont grew less than 4,000 acres of vegetables. That represents a huge increase over the last 20 years but is a drop in the bucket of the state’s potential. If we were to replace 1 percent of California vegetable acreage, we would have 12,000 acres.
If we ever wake up to the vulnerability of our food supply, Vermont is well positioned to supply the northeast. Food transport across the country is problematic and could be easily disrupted. For instance, earthquake experts tell us that when “the big one” hits California, highways and railroads will be put out of action as bridges, overpasses, etc. are destroyed. Eastern supermarket shelves will be bare of California products in a matter of days and could stay that way for months. Perhaps then we will take steps to regionalize food production?
As for other crops, industrial hemp has been much in the news. Growers are required to register with the state, and currently 2,711 acres are registered. Vermont was once a large producer of hemp, which has a host of uses. Most of the demand died decades ago as synthetic substitutes were devised. In today’s world, natural products like hemp oil and hemp fabric are making a comeback. I won’t be surprised to see many thousand more acres planted to hemp. UVM agronomist Heather Darby has been studying milkweed production for use as an insulator and oil crop. Just north of the border 2000 acres of milkweed is grown for a company supplying insulating fibers to the Canadian military.
Marijuana is another species in the Cannabis family that you may have heard about. With legalization, pot growing is bound to boom. I’ve seen it estimated that illegal marijuana cultivation is the second most valuable crop in Vermont. Now we will start to see whole acres and many greenhouses dedicated to marijuana.
Hops were once big business in Vermont and with the craft beer revolution I expect to witness a comeback. Longer growing seasons open up crops like peaches that could not make it in the past. Vineyards are being planted all over the state, supplying the exploding local wine industry.
As many acres as all these cash crops will occupy, the vast majority of Vermont farmland will still be grass. I am optimistic that well run small dairy farms will survive the current difficulties and thrive in their ability to produce milk on sustainable hay and pasture. I think it is folly for conventional Vermont dairies to try to grow in order to compete with large farms in places where it is much, much cheaper to produce milk. Instead, our dairy farms need to concentrate on our advantages, namely cheaply grown, abundant grass, our Vermont reputation for healthy, sustainable, local production, and our proximity to a very healthy market looking for those attributes.
Larger acreages of Vermont cropland may continue to grow conventional forage crops like corn, alfalfa, oats, and grass, but without so many cows. The western high plains currently grow millions of acres of these crops for sale to feedlots, cattle ranches and large dairies. Once again, these crops are grown with irrigation in a place not naturally suited to crop farming. A very large bucket of that irrigation water is pumped up from the Ogallala aquifer, a vast reservoir of ground water lying beneath the western plains that supplies 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. Unfortunately, farmers have pumped water far faster than it is replaced by precipitation, and the level of the Ogallala is falling rapidly. A study by Kansas State reveals that even with increasing efficiency of water use, 69% of the Ogallala will be used up in 50 years. Right now, irrigation wells that were once 50 feet deep have been deepened to 150 feet or more, or abandoned altogether due to overwhelming pumping costs. The government is now paying farmers to abandon wells, giving up irrigated crops in favor of the perennial grasses the land was meant to grow.
Our own naturally watered cropland can replace those abandoned acres. And a longer growing season will mean the ability to ripen corn for grain, a more valuable crop than silage corn. Soybeans are grown increasingly here and I see many more acres of soybeans grown for human consumption as well as for animal feed.
Farming in Vermont is in transition. These are brutal times for dairy farms and we will suffer as many of our traditional dairy farms go under. But these are also exciting times for emerging crops grown to feed regional markets. We will see more and larger fruit and veggie farms and be able to buy all sorts of local fruits and vegetables in our farmers markets and supermarkets. And I won’t be a bit surprised one day soon to be driving along one of our fabulous river meadows on a hot August day, windows rolled down, watching the tall hemp plants waving in the breeze.