Jack Lazor: Lake remediation starts with soil restoration

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Jack Lazor, the owner of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, and author of The Organic Grain Grower.

Just about everyone in Vermont agrees that Lake Champlain and its tributaries are stressed. Phosphorus levels in the lake continue to rise and algae blooms have become a common sight in the warmer summer months. Untold millions of dollars have been spent and numerous task forces have been organized to combat this situation.

Unfortunately, the results of all these efforts have been disappointing. The clock is ticking as the problem seems to worsen. The EPA has given the state of Vermont an ultimatum to comply with the Clean Water Act and clean up the lake. At this point in time, it doesn’t appear that the deadline will be met.

A look backward into the history of agriculture in our state might give us some clues as to how we have gotten ourselves into this mess.

After a brief period of wheat farming in the early 19th century, sheep farming became a way of life. After the sheep craze, dairying came to the fore in the last decades of the 19th century. Butter and cheese were the first products produced because they could keep for long periods of time and were easily transportable. Eventually, fluid milk came to forefront with the advent of better railroad transportation to the population centers of southern New England. I’ve heard many a story from old-time Vermonters about loading a boxcar with three layers of milk cans and ice for a journey to Whiting’s Dairy in Massachusetts.

As the 20th century progressed, roads improved and trucks got better resulting in what some industry people have called the Boston milkshed. Milk cans gave way to bulk tanks and tanker trucks in the 1950s and ’60s. Throughout this whole period, the number of farms has declined steadily from 11,000 in the 1940s to less than 1,000 today. Cow numbers have remained relatively constant, but milk production per cow has increased exponentially during this time.

There was no such thing as manure lagoon 40 years ago when there were thousands of small dairy farms in Vermont. Most farmers were milking 20 to 30 cows. Fifty or 60 cows was considered a large operation. Dairy manure was stored in large stacks out behind the barn underneath a long chute which was part of an automatic barn cleaner — a labor-saving device at the time. As winter progressed manure piles grew larger and larger to the point where gravity and pressure would exude a little brown stream of leachate which made its way across the farmyard to a ditch and eventually to a stream, a river and finally Lake Champlain or the Connecticut River.

These little rivulets of brown bothered some environmentalists because they were so blatant against a background of white snow. The most interesting thing about this supposedly bad situation is that pollution from farm runoff was relatively inconsequential in those days of yesteryear. The streams and rivers were full of trout and Lake Champlain was pristine.

So what has changed? The answer lies in the rise of production agriculture. The mid-1970s was the zenith of small mid-sized dairy farming in Vermont. By the early ’80s, agriculture all over the United States was feeling the pain of high interest rates, low prices, increased costs and unfavorable Reagan economic policy. Farmers left the land in droves all over the country. Here in Vermont, it wasn’t uncommon to see several farm auctions a week.

I find it so ironic that the system that was put in place to keep farm waste out of waterways has had the opposite effect. … Put plain and simple — we have changed our soils.

 

As farms ceased operating, consolidation became the new norm. Herd size began to increase. At the same time, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its policy on manure storage. Cost sharing became available for manure containment. Public policy set out to eliminate the shit pile and brown stream out behind the barn. The first manure storage structures were wooden plank affairs constructed from treated railroad ties. These soon gave way to large pits or lagoons dug into the earth.

In the space of a few years old-fashioned solid manure gave way to the liquid variety. The old box spreader was replaced by the liquid manure tanker. This new technology couldn’t have come at a better time. Farms were rapidly increasing in size and ease in the handling of animal waste helped to make the job more efficient and less time consuming. Manure was no longer shoveled with a front-end loader. It was now pumped. This made it much quicker and easier to get to distant fields as farmers increased their cropland by taking over farmland farther afield.

Confined animal feeding became the order of the day. Fewer and fewer cows were being pastured. It was considered to be much more efficient to bring the feed to the cows who were now living full time on cement. All the manure and urine could be collected and stored in the manure pit.

It was also about this time that people began to notice that the smell of dairy farms had changed. The sweet and pungent odor of freshly spread manure from the stack had given way the smell of hydrogen sulfide. There was something different about this new dairy waste. It was more like sewage sludge and less like good old-fashioned cow shit. Some neighbors complained, but the general consensus was that this was a necessary side effect of modern dairying and that the smell would dissipate in a day or two.

At first, farmers saw amazing crop responses from the application of liquid manure on their fields. In many cases, hay yields doubled and tripled much like they would if you had spread chemical fertilizer. Farmers did begin to notice however that legumes (clovers and alfalfa) were beginning to disappear from hay fields.

Crop response was quick and quite noticeable, but it soon became apparent that multiple applications were necessary throughout the season. To insure an adequate second and third cutting of hay, fields had to be doused after each harvest. This really wasn’t a problem because supplies were plentiful. Cow numbers per farm had risen dramatically and rainfall kept lagoons topped up. Yields of corn silage also spiked with application of this new miracle substance.

This modern system of waste storage and application is now 30 years old. During this time we have seen amazing increases in the productivity of dairy farms here in Vermont. As farm profitability has either declined or remained stagnant, we have learned how to push animals and the land a little harder to make ends meet. The average dairy cow doesn’t usually live past four years old because of this “burn ‘em and turn ‘em” style of animal husbandry.

Unfortunately, the same holds true for our precious farmland. Have you ever noticed the large flocks of seagulls that descend upon the land after liquid manure has been spread? They are there to feast on the worms that come to the surface gasping for air.

Manure slurry may have been the best thing since sliced bread when it was first introduced, but its continued use has caused a number of problems like the hardening of the ground. The productivity of most farm soils lies in the top six to eight inches, which is an aerobic zone teeming with oxygen-loving microbes, bacteria and fungi. Manure slurry stored in a lagoon is anaerobic and works in direct opposition to these healthy soil organisms. I liken liquid manure with all of its free ammonia to the anhydrous ammonia that was applied to harden jungle soils to make landing strips in the South Pacific during World War II. We’ve succeeded in turning much of Vermont’s soil into something akin to cement.

I find it so ironic that the system that was put in place to keep farm waste out of waterways has had the opposite effect. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on physical intervention to no avail. Put plain and simple — we have changed our soils. Water and runoff don’t infiltrate like they once did. More plant nutrients in the form of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus have been conserved for growing crops, but the one element that has been totally forgotten is carbon.

Over-application of manure slurry burns the reserve carbon and organic matter out of the earth and sends it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. This humus fraction is what gives our soils the resilience to absorb and store large quantities of rainfall or wick away excess moisture by capillary action. Carbon is like the lungs of the earth allowing it to breathe in and out.

We need a new paradigm and Earth ethic here in Vermont and all over the world. This is something that everyone is responsible for — not just dairy farmers. We all need to understand the carbon cycle and do our best to sequester this precious element wherever we can from lawns and gardens to farm fields. We are all so concerned about what goes into the sky from our tailpipes and chimneys, but we have totally neglected our land practices in this discussion.

I would suggest that you read Vermont author Judith D. Schwartz’s new book on this very subject, “Cows Save the Planet.” It’s a short read and it will introduce you to a whole new world of carbon and cattle husbandry.

I want to see dairying remain an important way of life on the land here in Vermont. I realize that change is difficult especially when profits are low and margins are slim. When the next round of public money is directed at remedying the high levels of phosphorus in Lake Champlain, it will be absolutely essential to be as creative and open minded as possible. We need to restore the health of our soils however we can. Perhaps an inexpensive system of aeration for manure lagoons can be developed and promoted. If this powerful liquid substance could be converted to something more aerobic like it is done in a sewage treatment plant, we might have something much more benign to apply to the land.

Cover cropping of bare fields in the fall and winter months needs to become a standard practice along with crop rotation and grazing. You can’t beat roots in the ground to prevent runoff and leaching. The same holds true for residential lawns and public parking lots. We need the permeability that comes with soils high in humus and organic matter. There is hope for Lake Champlain and we can still have dairying in Vermont if we can figure out how to put carbon back into the earth. It is my hope that everyone who lives here can wake up to the fact that adequate soil carbon is essential for environmental remediation.

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  • Mary Brenner

    thanks again Jack!
    Mary

  • Grace Gershuny

    Thank you Jack!

    You continue to inform and inspire us, and I hope this beautiful essay will be passed along to more policy makers. Rather than having to spend so much money on remediation, lets invest in our soil.

  • Mark Boudreau

    Fascinating post. Thank you!

  • Kathy Leonard

    There has been a lot of squawking here on Digger about agriculture and Lake Champlain… Here is someone who understands how we got here and what we can do to begin to turn it around. History seems to get lost in many issues we face, yet studying it is key to figuring out the next step — along with learning (or rather, relearning) that we shouldn’t treat our soil like dirt.

    Or as Wendell Barry has said… “I stand for what I stand on.”

  • Bruce Post

    First, Jack Lazor’s history of how we handle manure on Vermont farms was — and this may sound odd – a trip down memory lane for me. In the mid-1980s, I was Senator Stafford’s State Director. Every fall, I would join a group that would tour manure lagoons up in Franklin County and judge the quality of these structures. Then, we would vote on the winner. As Jack wrote, we truly thought this was quite an advance over open field spreading of manure solids. Now, I learn that, as with many actions, there are unintended – sometimes negative – consequences.

    Second, Kathy Leonard’s comment that “History seems to get lost in many issues we face” is very apropos. Her remarks also dovetail nicely with Jack’s references to the legacy of sheep farming and the transition to open pasture dairying.

    Deforestation preceded the pasturing of sheep in Vermont. When we denuded our hillsides, we also quickly exhausted the early humus deposits that were a product of the forests. Therefore, with the old fertility gone, sheep seemed a convenient replacement. By 1840, there were roughly 1.7 million sheep in Vermont. One calculation is that there were six sheep for every person.

    Looking at our green hills today, it is tempting to conclude that Vermont has healed. Yet, the forests are not the same and, as Jack and Kathy imply, we are still living with the consequences of that early environmental devastation. Now, today, we increasingly intrude on our mountains, damage our soils and flush runoff from multiple sources into our waterways, but we simultaneously kid ourselves that these actions have little detrimental effect on our environment. To paraphrase an old song, “When will we ever learn?”

  • Abe Collins

    Jack, this is a powerful essay. I agree wholeheartedly; clean water comes from healthy topsoil.

    An effective answer to the question “how do we achieve clean water and flood regulation” is the question “how do we grow deeper, healthier topsoil?”

    What if we considered clean water and flood regulation as economically valuable crops?

    Looking back on our time, I expect that future historians will describe the “soil carbon craze” that swept the land and the reduced flooding and clean streams and lakes that resulted.

    Thanks again Jack.
    Abe Collins

  • At Vermont Family Forests our motto is this: “CLEAN WATER: The Premier Forest Product.” Healthy forests have carbon-rich soils that act like sponges. Healthy ‘working’ forests have well-designed access networks that: occupy less than 5% of the forest; are built at average grades of about 7% ; and have plenty of broad-based dips installed to reduce overland flow. Healthy forests have plenty of limbs and tops left to rot, to serve as debris dams, and to provide habitat and cation exchange sites. Healthy forests are resilient in the face of gully-washing storm events associated with a rapidly changing climate. When forests produce clean, clear, highly-oxygenated, cool waters, we know we are taking good care of the ecological health of forests including carbon storage, biological diversity, and soil productivity. Timber and sap production are important privately-held assets. And landowners will continue to manage their forests for them. But clean, clear, flowing waters are our premier, commonly-held, forest assets. We should make CLEAN WATER the primary focus of Vermont’s all-important Current Use Program. We should encourage landowners to leave riparian areas uncut and un-roaded. We should expect forests enrolled in the Current Use Program to comply much more fully with Vermont’s Acceptable Management Practices for Maintaining Water Quality on Logging Operations. Few if any actually do. Publicly funded cost-share practices should focus on water quality more and on timber less. In short, the time has come to re-think our priorities in the practice of forestry in Vermont. Our focus, our primary forest product, should be CLEAN WATER.

  • Jack’s article IS excellent. It IS time for sweeping changes in agriculture including how soil health is managed and conserved.. No small task. However, the quote “We have changed our soils” is not quite right. At one time soils were “ours”. They were held in common by the community that occupied the land. The native Abenakis did a great job of conserving their community soils for example. “Enclosure” changed all of that — some think for the better. Enclosure changed soil from “ours” to “theirs”. Soils are now owned by the farmer. It should ultimately be up to the farmer to figure out how best to conserve them. Government can help though its efforts to date have not been very wise or effective — ecologically or economically. Flowing waters are still “OURS”. They are part of The Commons. We the people own them. That is where we should focus “our” efforts. Let farmers farm their soils. ‘We the people’ should focus on conserving our flowing waters. We can and should work together but it is important to remember who owns and is responsible for what.

  • Lisa Boisvert

    Thank you for sharing this practical wisdom, it seems so simple and straightforward. It reminds me of One Man, One Cow, One Planet, a documentary on how simple shifts in farming in India have brought life back to the earth and the people, it can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vErQWRIV4Fw

  • Roger Allbee

    As usual, Jack has provided sage advice based upon history, his keen knowledge and experience of being on the land, and concern about the environment. He lives the land, sees the obvious, and advocates time tested solutions.

  • John Greenberg

    Thanks for this article. I wonder if Jack — or anyone else — could tell us how using manure for methane production and THEN spreading the remaining waste would impact the problems described here. Thanks.

    • Here is my response to the farm methane issue. Methane production on large dairy farms is not the free energy that the industry would like you to think it is. The chemical formula for methane is CH4 which should tell us that we are removing carbon from the manure cycle. The resultant digest-ate left over in the process of turning farm manure into bio gas is quite high in soluble nutrients and rather low in the carbon department. Most of this product is subjected to a manure separator where it is “squeezed” out and recycled as bedding. The dairy industry considers this to be very efficient because it lessens the need for purchased bedding inputs. The sawdust that was once imported onto these operations was the only cellulosic (carbon) employed aside from purchased grain. Like so many of the developments in modern agriculture (gmo seeds come to mind), there has been very little research on the consequences of these practices. To my knowledge, there have been no studies on the long term effects on soil quality of liquid manure applications and farm methane digestion. Common sense tells me that you can only extract carbon from the equation for a limited time before the onset of trouble. The pollution that plagues Lake Champlain and other waterways here in Vermont is simply an external expression of statewide inaction to conserve carbon and organic matter in soils.

  • Jamie Gage

    Great editorial, Jack, very concise history to help Vermonters understand the issue more clearly so to write better policy for the future. Thank you.

  • Herb Arce

    I see the same kind of thing fast approaching Aroostook County Maine. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years, and how that can be applied here.

  • Thank you Jack. Really well stated.
    YES to: No more bare soils, and YES to specifying, monitoring and protecting the organic matter of our agricultural and forestry soils. And YES to making this a REQUIREMENT of VHCB investments, NRCS programs, AAFM programs and most importantly …Current Use eligibility for BOTH agriculture and sylvaculture enterprises.

  • J. Paul Sokal

    Thanks, Jack, for this well informed biology lesson.
    Regarding homeowner’s lawns, it would be very interesting to see data quantifying the tons of fertilizers used annually by residential homeowners.
    Lawns are vestigial landscapes from European estates. At that time lawns were really pastures that deployed a wall, called a ha-ha, constructed so that the grade change, occasioned by the wall, (falling away from the point of view) would present the illusion of a continuous green sward. The wall in fact prevented the livestock from entering the residential landscape. Quite the biologically sustainable system.
    Our gullibility regarding the fertilizer industry’s marketing has convinced us to fertilize a lush green lawn which requires constant expensive mowing. Where are the grazing mowers which paid their keep? Which produced their replacements?
    Let the dandelions grow! On our landscape we started mowing the former farm’s untilled night pasture and have never put a drop or grain of fertilizer on our lovely green lawn over the course of 33 years.

  • Nate Palmer

    It is amazing how foolish we can be with our lands. If we could only work with the idea that if we take care of the land, the land takes care of us. I think the problem we are dealing with here is that so many people look at the land as just rocks and dirt. The shift away from the farm based community has left us with a lot of people that are not connected to the land making the decisions that affect the land.

    Here’s an example; Governor Shumlin is backing a pipeline through Addison County that will result in the stripping of top soil off a 75 ft. wide, 70 mile long right of way. This is a parcel of land the size of the City of Vergennes that will be subjected to extreme disturbance and intense compaction and will create a mainline highway for phosphorus, carbon and anything else picked up along the way… headed straight to Lake Champlain. Soil destruction and loss of microbes will be huge. And I have a feeling that somehow this will come back as an agricultural problem..it will be easy to pin the blame on the farmers.

  • James Maroney

    The only thing I would add is that thanks to Jack, we have now seen the enemy — and it is us. Consumers are equally responsible for the problem as the farmers if they continue to purchase conventionally made food. The solution is for consumers to insist upon food grown sustainably (organically). I don’t mean a little brown bag of beans or a loaf of bread bought at the farmers’ market on weekends; I mean everything you buy and bring home to eat. This will raise the cost of food. Yes, because conventional farming was designed to lower the cost of food by externalizing the toxic chemicals into the lake. And it works, but so extravagantly. Reversing this process removes those chemicals from the farm and from the lake and raises the cost of farming and the food produced. How to get there when cheap food is obviously appealing to us all? Society must learn that the probity of farming is inexorable: land and animals simply cannot be fooled. Society then has an obligation to itself to regulate how farming is conducted so that it does not pollute; that in turn eliminates the farmers’ incentive to farm conventionally. And that is how we serve the lake and the farmers and the soil and the atmosphere and the community.

  • A. “Society then has an obligation to itself to regulate how farming is conducted so that it does not pollute…”

    or

    B.”Watershed members need to keep tract of the health of our local streams, rivers, and lakes as well as identifying and addressing the specific causes of their pollution…”

  • Bruce Post

    This has been a fascinating, informing and civil discussion. Thank you all!

    I think that Vermont should have a state-wide converstation on Aldo Leopold’s The Land Ethic. I am still examining it and have hardly come to grasp its implications. In it, he sets out “the land pyramid,” beginning with soil as its base. Too much to lay out here, but folks who are interested in a summary could find one here at the Aldo Leopold Foundation: http://www.aldoleopold.org/AldoLeopold/LandEthic.pdf

    The Land Ethic was written in the late 1940s, toward the end of Leopold’s life. I wonder what he would think about how we have treated the land since — even here in Vermont.

  • Jack, seems like you got a lot of people going on this one.
    It is my understanding that more than half of the anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere is from 10,000 years of de-cabonizing of soils by abusive farming, forestry, and other social developments. Fossil fuels have enabled soil abuse at rates that beggar the best soil abuse efforts of preindustrial cultures.
    The present need is to ad carbon to soils.
    The best place to get that Carbon is from the air (where it is at work destabilizing climate) by the growing of biomass for soil inclusion in place.
    The preponderant flow of Phosphorus is on soil, not through soil. Erosion, the movement of soil in water from so many of our modern life practices.
    We now have maps of every damaged crack where soil runs into lake Champlain’s waters whether from a town or a farm or parking lot.
    We are a state where many people are trying to earn a living with soil moving tools small to large;
    Let us put those folks to work plugging the cracks with retained carbon filters to capture the soil (the P)and filter the N out of the water.
    These filters Soil inclusion of forest and other biomass should have incentive to compete against against the quick pay of electric generation.
    The filter media can then grow nutrient extractor, fungus organizer, biomass species (jerusalem artichoke, clover, comfrey, etc). Over time and properly designed, these filters will be new aluvial terraces.
    We need to start at the top and work our way down watersheds , turning the water to the flat and slow, dropping all the particulates. As Egypt showed us, fortuitously managed erosion is the basis of continuously fruitful soils.

    This winter we are trialing a traction mix of 80% wood chips blended with 20% crushed granite and basalt. We are applying the material to the road thru a loader-mounted trommel screen sizing the material to about 9/16”. This gives us a very precise thin layer of wood chips and splinters which are coated with the sharp fragments of the crushed granite and basalt. The piles do not freeze even in the coldest nights, the material applies steaming and sears itself into the frozen roadway. The trafficking with tires on the sharp stone/wood chips makes a perfect spec filter media as it slows the water on the way.
    This is a local carbon sequestration, mineralization alternative to salt/sand mixtures that costs much less money than salt and does not degrade metallic infrastructure.

    I guess you got me going too
    As you always have
    Thanks Jack, I love you,
    Karl hammer

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