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.