Bob Foster: Vermont farmers are covering good ground for soil health

A pre-pandemic demonstration on farm cover crops at Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury. Courtesy photo

This commentary is by Bob Foster, a dairy farmer at Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury. The farm supplies milk for Cabot cheese products through the Agri-Mark cooperative. The farm also recycles cow manure to produce a line of compost products called Moo Doo, which are sold around the Northeast. Foster is a member of the board of directors for the Soil Health Institute.

When you drive past a farm field this winter, you might be curious about what’s growing there. Yes, growing. At our dairy farm and farms across the state, we’re growing plants on our fields even in the winter. 

We keep the growing season going 365 days a year with cover crops, like winter rye. You’ll see fields throughout Addison County, and across the state, green with cover crops still growing as long as the temperatures are around 30 degrees. When temperatures dip even colder or fields are covered in snow, winter rye will go dormant, then renew growth in late winter. 

Vermont recorded nearly 30% of its available cropland planted to cover crops in 2017, according to the Soil Health Institute, and we’re increasing that number every year. The U.S. average is only 5.6%.  

Why does this matter? Farmers are covering what were once barren cornfields in the winter because we’ve seen the scientific benefits such as carbon sequestration, reduced erosion and nutrient runoff, and flood mitigation. We pair that with reducing tilling or no-tilling in the spring for even greater gains in each of these areas. 

More people are now starting to understand these benefits too as documentaries like “Kiss the Ground” call attention to the fact that, without healthy soil, our society is in trouble.

Cover crops help us solve the issue of climate change because they are an amazing carbon sink. UVM Extension agronomists estimate that if all 80,000 acres of Vermont’s annual cropland had a cover crop, the carbon sequestration would be equivalent to taking over 51,000 cars off the road. 

Bob Foster is a dairy farmer at Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury and a member of the board of directors for the Soil Health Institute. Courtesy photo

Another reason we use cover crops is to help the soil hold more water. As extreme weather events like heavy rain and flooding become more common, we need our soil to absorb that water and stay in place.

On an acre-by-acre average basis, developed land can contribute up to four times more phosphorus pollution through runoff than farmland and seven times more than forested or natural areas (Lake Champlain Basin Program). According to Food Solutions New England, 85% of the farmland in New England is managed by dairy farmers and is keeping land from being developed.

At Foster Brothers Farm, we grow 900 acres of hay, 550 acres of corn, plus 300 acres of soybeans and small grains to feed our cows. In the spring, our winter cover crop needs to stop growing so it won’t compete with the corn we need to plant on the same field. 

Farmers do this in several ways, depending on their goals and conditions. Some harvest the cover crop for feed for the cows, some flatten it down with machinery, some till it underground, and others will kill it with an herbicide like Round Up, also known as glyphosate. At Foster Brothers, we’ve experimented with doing all of these methods.

On our farm, the biggest environmental benefits come when the cover crop is not tilled and is left to decompose into the earth, building organic matter, increasing water infiltration, and protecting the surface of our soil. Either rolling it down or using herbicides means there will be no tillage on the field, which dramatically reduces our carbon footprint, and helps maintain healthier soil. 

We have seen this with our own eyes, as we have watched our soil improve dramatically as we adopted this conservation cropping system of no-till and cover crops.  Our soil is biologically active, and we want to take care of it just like we do our cows and people.

We recognize that some people have concerns about the use of glyphosate. We don’t take the use of herbicides lightly. We are raising our families on our farms and we share the same concern for safety.  We employ certified experts to ensure we utilize these tools safely and only when needed. The time, amount and method of application of herbicides is extremely precise, specific to the crop, and regulated by EPA and the state of Vermont.

The U.S. EPA, European Food Safety Authority, as well as other regulatory authorities in multiple countries continuously review registered pesticide products and have repeatedly confirmed that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic when handled according to their label. 

Most farmers I know have reduced their use of longer-lasting and more toxic chemicals, instead favoring safer and less persistent chemicals to achieve the same goals. Glyphosate is one example of this.  It is applied to a growing plant (the cover crop or target weed).  It breaks down quickly, and is safer for humans, animals and the environment compared to other options when handled appropriately.

The latest biotechnology innovations enable farmers to practice more regenerative farming techniques and are just one tool that farmers can choose to use. 

I believe agriculture is at the heart of solving a lot of the issues we face, such as climate change, flooding and the water quality in Lake Champlain, and there are many paths farmers can choose to get there. Farmers started on this path to improve soil health because protecting the environment is in our blood. 

Most agriculturists aren’t out waving the flag about what they are doing. But, as people become more interested in how our food impacts the environment, it’s time we shared how we’re getting the job done while also providing people with things they can use, whether it’s milk, cheese, compost, or other farm products. 

When talking about sustainability, the media and research often focus solely on greenhouse gas emissions, or one component of how we run our farms. Few think about the big picture, including the positive impact local food production has on food security, nutrition and our economy. 

The saying is “There is no such thing as free lunch,” but dairy farmers are on track to continue to provide affordable, nutritious food with little impact on the environment. The movement we are building is nationwide and the dairy industry has set our sights on being carbon-neutral by 2050. Every farm has something to contribute and I’m proud to do my part.


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