Forty percent of Vermont’s cows now live on very large farms with an average of 900 cows ‑ this is a key statistic affecting water and air quality.

Last month I delved into the statistical history of Vermont farms, how dairy farms have grown from 17 cows per farm in 1950 to 180 cows per farm today.

This huge change in the culture of farming in Vermont has been driven by the economies of scale, the absence of consistent milk pricing mechanisms, and federal programs that facilitate the expansion of farms. The resulting farm conglomerates have essentially herded all the cows from neighboring farms into one barn.

We listen in horror to stories of feedlots out in the plains where 100,000 cattle are kept in giant mucky lots to fatten them up for slaughter. Vermont’s large farms are not feedlots, but neither are they the idealized family farm we carry in our mind’s eye. Most are still owned by families, but so is Walmart. Large farms have a dozen or more employees, many of whom are undocumented workers who live under the radar. Pay for most employees on large farms is very low and some of that pay consists of room and board. Most Vermont farms provide workers with decent housing, but as a recent investigation by VT Digger pointed out; some barely meet the minimum standards set by the Vermont Department of Labor.

According to the Vermont Department of Labor, “Individuals employed in agriculture are exempt from Vermont’s minimum wage & overtime laws pursuant to 21 V.S.A. § 383.” This means that agricultural workers must only be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and are not covered by overtime pay requirements. Sixty or even 80-hour weeks are common. If hours, pay, and living conditions were better, would there be a shortage of people wanting to work on farms?

The current run of very low milk prices has put all farms under strain, but particularly the large farms with mountains of debt. Small, diversified farms which have kept their debt low are more resilient. In many Vermont communities, a single large farm uses nearly all the tillable land in town. In the past, when one or two of the small farms in town went out of business, only a small amount of land might be abandoned. Many times, other farms took up the slack, or another small farmer moved in to try their luck. Now agricultural lenders are faced with a scenario of a dismal business outlook where they must decide how long to prop up farms that are bleeding money. And we are faced with the very real scenario of a large farm going under, and the possibility that much of the open land that defines a community could be abandoned. Are we at the point where the economics of the dairy industry will no longer support the huge investment required to run a large dairy in Vermont?

And then there is the matter of water quality, currently a hot topic in the Vermont legislature. The focus and money have been on building ever bigger facilities to store manure. Yet after 30 years and many millions of taxpayer dollars, water quality problems persist. The crux of the matter is the management of nutrients in manure.

Small farms spread over many towns meant nutrients spread judiciously over many towns. Large farms have concentrated the animals from many nearby farms onto one farmstead. They truck in silage and other feed from long distances, concentrating the nutrients from all that land into one place. From the cow those nutrients go into manure pits, some of them gigantic structures. It’s not economical to truck manure back to the farthest fields, which can be over an hour away. Instead, nutrients become concentrated on the fields closest to the big barns.

There are regulations on spreading manure, intended to protect water quality. About 30 years ago, Vermont adopted “Accepted Agricultural Practices” (AAPs) including a rule that manure could not be spread from Dec. 15 until April 1. The AAPs were more or less voluntary, with lackadaisical enforcement. About 15 years ago, the federal EPA required Vermont to bring “Large Farm Operations” (700 or more cows) under mandatory regulations. A few years later “Medium Farm Operations” (200-700 cows) were included in mandatory regulations. In 2016 the AAPs became “Required Agricultural Practices” (RAPs), applying to all farms. It’s a lot to absorb, but go to the VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets website and read the summary of the RAPs. Here’s the link:

Nearly all Vermont farms with livestock are required to manage the nutrients on the farm in a responsible, sustainable way. Those with more than 50 cows (or similar weights of other animals) or more than 50 acres of crops or veggies must follow a very specific nutrient management plan. They work with Conservation Districts, The Vermont Department of Agriculture, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop these plans, and are then responsible for distributing nutrients according to soil tests, timing constraints and buffer zones while keeping diligent records. Once approved, these plans supersede the more general rules in the RAPs.

Such regulations are politically expedient but difficult and expensive to follow and enforce. Our early winter this year is a good example. The RAPs prohibit spreading from Dec. 15 until April 1, and nutrient management plans prohibit spreading on snow or frozen ground, no matter the date. With the ability to store manure, many farms focus on Dec. 15 and postpone spreading through the busy summer and fall harvest seasons, counting on being able to empty their pits after the crops are in. A huge amount of manure is spread in November and into December. This year, snow arrived for good on Nov. 10. Many Vermont farmers were caught with their pits still half full. If they stopped spreading manure as required, their pits will be full to overflowing in mid-winter. Consequently, we witnessed a lot of manure spread on snow in November, and we will see a lot more in March. The Vermont Agency of Ag can allow spreading on snow in emergency situations, on a case by case basis. I’m sure they were flooded with requests this fall.