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Agricultural Land Conversion

Today we recognize the importance of environmental stewardship as never before. Our common goal: To protect our natural resources. It is of critical importance that we proceed with rules designed to address our environmental needs but perhaps of greater importance, to put things in a context which effectively meet the needs of everyone involved.

We have been fortunate in this country thus far to rely on agriculture in satisfying our nutritional requirements on demand, at competitive prices and with great variety. Presently though, farmers in the Northeast are finding some agricultural practices difficult to implement as they operate under the regulations of the Clean Water Act of 1978. The regulations have increased farmers' cost of production and have diminished opportunities for full utilization of their resources. While we all recognize the importance of protecting our natural resources let us not overlook agriculture as a resource worth protecting.

Converting land from an unproductive use into valuable agricultural land is a matter of following established rules. I have been working with a farmer who   manages a couple of thousand acres of land in Northwestern Vermont and a similar amount of acreage in Northeastern New York. The objective of the law is to protect our natural resources, while well intentioned; the rules look different on paper than in practice. This farmer, by converting three acres of land to improve efficiency, has jeopardized his participation in federal Programs. These programs benefit agriculture but also provide a measure of control over natural resources. If the farmer is able to mitigate the three acres identified as wetland, he will be off-the-hook. If not, he will be out of the Program resulting in less regulatory control over some 4,000 acres.

A number of farmers have faced similar consequences during the past few years as a result of economic pressures to increase crop production in order to remain viable. The definition of wetland by the federal government is substantially different than the definition that most people would imagine. Hydric soils grow certain types of vegetation indicating that a closer inspection of subsoils and hydrology may reveal it fits the criteria of a wetland. It is quite possible to walk through an area and return with clean dry shoes only to find that on closer inspection it does in fact meet the federal criteria of a wetland.

 It has become increasingly apparent that rules designed for the protection of natural resources are difficult to administer and too often create a significant hardship for farmers. The farmer's asset, which he purchased to increase crop production, has been reidentified and appropriated as the government's resource without financially recognizing the farmer's interest, thereby setting the stage for a tenuous relationship.  

During the past several months, I have met with officials from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Agency of Natural resources, Agency of Agriculture, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and other organizations here in Vermont. During September, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Albee and I traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with Gary Mast, Deputy Under Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Job Serebrov, Senior Counselor to the General Counsel and Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment and finally our Congressman, Peter Welch. I have spent a great deal of time and personal resources  listening to everyone in order to develop a plan that will address our mutual needs, one that includes agriculture, Natural Resources, Lake Champlain and the people of our region.

Since farmers control large tracts of land and environmental control is difficult to achieve, perhaps we could adopt a proactive approach to the problem, one which includes the farmer and allows everyone to participate in protecting our natural resources; rather than a system which levies a fine or penalty against the people whose livelihood is producing our food. In the Franklin/Grand Isle region of Vermont, this could be accomplished through a pilot project to develop a master plan on each farm choosing to participate in the program.  

It seems to me that virtually every farm in Vermont has wetland. Some areas of wetland are quite large; others are small and scattered sporadically across the land base. If a field or potential field has identifiable wetland which makes it difficult for agricultural production, I suggest that a master plan take the total of those wet acres and expand a designated wetland or swamp by that amount. This solution would effectively create a larger more productive wildlife habitat in a designated area, a larger more productive agricultural resource, with no net loss of wetland and no net loss of hydrology. In other words, mitigate the wetlands by replacing them with other lands on the farm in an area contiguous to the designated area or swamp.

Farmers recognize the importance of buffer strips along waterways and drainage ditches. However, farmers also find it difficult to give up productive land to create those buffers. If his productive fields can be expanded or are more efficiently harvested, the farmer can then effectively cooperate with the intent of the Clean Water Act.

If we look at the median age of the farmer in Vermont and compare the value of agricultural land to that of other real estate, we then begin to recognize another definition of highly erodible land. The Clean Water Act sets forth requirements to protect our natural resources but in this instance causes unintended harm, which encourages an exodus from agriculture to other forms of land development.

As the farmer begins to transition his land out of Agriculture for other uses, either more profitable or less regulated, we will begin to recognize a loss to our economy our infrastructure and our natural resources. Dairy is Vermont's chief economic engine and a diminished agricultural base places a greatly increased burden on everything left behind, including all of us.  

The USDA website displays a 10-page list of studies on nutrition, one study shows that by spending 10 - 12 Billion dollars more on nutrition the Federal government could eliminate hunger in the United States. Too often, we go to great expense in order to avoid a pitfall, yet manage to fall short on something as real as hunger in our own country. In a context which addresses all of our needs we must first define wetland and then put things in perspective with a more comprehensive plan which protects our natural resources and encourages agricultural production.

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