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Vermont's Pike and Rock River Watersheds Protected with Conservation

A tale of two farms in VermontAmy Overstreet, NRCS

Fiske Family, Rock River WatershedOn his 360-acre dairy farm between Highgate and Franklin, Wayne Fiske knows that conservation works. Not only for the benefit and protection of the natural resources surrounding his farm, but also for his bottom line. At Windfall Acres along Vermont’s Rock River, conservation practices  like strip cropping, crop rotation, cover crops and no-till, riparian buffers, grassed waterways, and forage and biomass plantings dot the landscape. Since 2005, nutrient management has helped him improve productivity while protecting the environment. Wayne and his wife Nancy are proud of their sustainably managed dairy farm in Vermont’s Rock River Watershed. “Strip cropping has been a standard practice here for at least 30 years, and it’s key to our success,” says Fiske. He explained that it slows the water running across exposed soil which is then filtered by an adjacent strip of vegetation. “We don’t want to lose our topsoil.” He says that farmers in his watershed, and beyond, are seeing the benefits of conservation practices like cover crops and no-till. “It really does save time and money.”

Close by in the neighborinBenjamin Family, Pike River Watershedg Pike River Watershed, Mike and Denna Benjamin manage a herd of 550 dairy cows and crop 1,000 acres  in East Franklin. At their Riverview Farm, conservation practices like a waste storage facility and bio-digester, crop rotation, residue and tillage management, cover cropping, nutrient management, and an access road for livestock are protecting soil and water quality. The farm’s proximity to Lake Carmi is one of the reasons that the Benjamin’s are committed to managing their resources with conservation in mind.  Farmers like Mike and Denna are doing everything they can to minimize their impact.  Mike says water quality is important to them. “My parents bought this farm in 1943,” he explained. They were early adopters, installing a manure pit in the early 1980’s for improved utilization of nutrients. A few years ago, they started practicing manure injection. This technology helps reduce air pollution and allows for more precise application of manure to fields which reduces harmful runoff into nearby waterbodies.

Both farmers worked with the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), led by Advisory Board Chair Dr. Kent Henderson. Through an agreement with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), FNLC worked collaboratively with partners in the Pike and Rock River Watersheds to ramp up conservation implementation. The Benjamin and Fiske families were early adopters of conservation, and are both involved in their local watershed action groups. Henderson says he has seen a shift  in farming practice approaches in these watersheds, even before the Required Agricultural Practices (RAP’s) implemented by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. A drive through both watersheds reveals a landscape where conservation practices are abundant.  “There is real momentum growing,” says Henderson.

Through the FNLC agreement with NRCS, an outreach and education plan was initiated in both watersheds to ensure that farmers were aware of the programs and services available to them, including NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This Farm Bill program helps farmers install conservation practices that protect and improve soil and water quality including reduced tillage, nutrient management, cover crops, permanent seeding, buffers, and prescribed grazing.

The agreement between FNLC and NRCS is part of NRCS’ five-year strategic watershed plan to target watersheds with the highest phosphorus loads. These include St. Albans Bay, Pike River, Rock River, and McKenzie Brook in Addison County. Working with state and local partners, NRCS allocated financial and technical assistance to these areas through EQIP. “The conservation practices installed in the Lake Champlain Basin over the last few years are already making a positive, and measurable, impact on soil and water health,” reports Vermont NRCS State Conservationist Vicky Drew. This summer, NRCS published promising news about the results of the conservation work implemented in these areas, thanks to the efforts of dedicated farmers. In the targeted watersheds, models were used to estimate the phosphorus pollution reduced through increased use of conservation practices. “Based on modeled estimates, conservation practices implemented in the Pike and Rock River watersheds are expected to reduce phosphorus runoff entering both Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi ,” explained Vermont NRCS Water Quality Specialist Kip Potter.

The increased use of conservation practices is helping reduce phosphorus runoff in both the Pike and Rock River watersheds. According to NRCS, in the Pike Watershed, the amount of cover crops planted and the use of reduced tillage increased significantly in 2016. The amount of nutrient management and permanent seeding also increased in the watershed. In the Rock River Watershed, the amount of cover crops planted and the use of reduced tillage increased in 2016 as well.

Wayne FiskeBoth Fiske and Benjamin admit that farming has its challenges, particularly the drop in milk prices. But their motivations for farming, and sticking with it, run deep. “I get to watch the sunrises, and the sunsets, see the deer, and look out across the land and see the results of our work. That’s gratifying,” said Fiske. Benjamin says, “I was born and brought up in it. It’s in your blood. That’s why you do it.”

Thanks to these farmers for their commitment and stewardship which are protecting and improving soil and water quality in the Pike and Rock River Watersheds and beyond.

Kent and Fiske