Conservation farming is critical to the soil quality of Vermont farms. It reduces soil erosion and impacts the condition of the water in Lake Champlain. So, we care a heck of a lot about the ramifications of land condition. It’s no secret that years of uncontrolled soil erosion have contributed to blue-green algae blooms. You see our concern with farming practices and implementing significant advances to preserve and clean-up our lake.

At Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), we are most involved with water quality initiatives. Water quality cannot come without good agricultural conservation practices. Together, these practices ensure a cleaner lake. Good news, right? It is! But, it takes time, and over time we expect to see fewer algal blooms.

How Does Conservation Farming Impact Water Quality?

Conservation farming is the practice of preserving the fertility and soil quality of the land. Who is most worried about this? Agricultural landowners who are growing crops and feeding animals.

The incentive for farmers to install appropriate practices is because the farm is valued by fertility and crop yield. Conservation farming improves soil quality through nutrient retention, whereas traditional methods result in soil depletion. If the soil depletes, then farmers are relying on expensive chemicals and organic matter to supplement fertility.

The amount of organic matter and topsoil in and on the land determines soil quality. Through soil conservation efforts, you’ll avoid erosion and improve soil health, resulting in better crop yield.

So, how do you go about that? By implementing one of the five methods of conservation farming critical to soil conservation and water quality improvement.

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Top Five Methods to Soil Conservation and Water Quality Improvement

The passage of Act 64 in 2015 laid out the required agronomic practices on Vermont farms. Each farm has now undergone review by an inspector from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM). Each farm has received a report that identifies what they need to change and what is going well. For some, the report identifies some following methods as solutions.

We’ve reviewed and compared all the possible Best Management Practices (BMPs) available. These are the top five practices that came out of our assessment. We considered our options based on the amount of phosphorous kept out of waterways compared to the cost of investment. Many will understand this formula as the cost per pound of phosphorus retained.

Method 1: Reduced Tillage

Reduced tillage is the number one practice because it has the most significant impact on both soil conservation and water quality.

This practice has a higher upfront cost because you either need to buy new equipment or modify your current equipment. However, it has a lower annual cost when calculated over the 20 to 30-year lifespan of the equipment.

Changing your equipment or investing in new equipment has a long-term payoff of better soil quality and reduced runoff into nearby waterways.

Our friends over at the UVM Extensions Northwest Crops and Soils Program have some recommendations and questions to consider:

  • Assess the drainage on your field.
  • Are you rotating crops?
  • Do you add manure?

We encourage you to reach out to local farmers, UVM Extension, us, and others with experience putting this practice into place. You’ll find that reduced tillage, and method 2, cover crops work very well together.

Method 2: Cover Crops

“Never let the land be bare,” as the motto goes. Did you know that Vermont is number one in the country on a per-acre basis for the amount of land that uses cover crops? Pretty incredible! According to the VAAFM, approximately one-third of tilled cropland is planting cover crops to reduce erosion and prevent nutrients from entering waterways.

Most times, this solution is the most cost-effective because state and federal grants support the cost to plant cover crops in the first years of adoption. Yet, it is an annual cost because you must purchase new seed yearly.

Method 3: Riparian Buffer Filter Strips

Act 64 requires that we apply riparian buffer filter strips on land with a slope to reduce and remove any harmful runoff into our waterways. Erosion because still occurs because the land is on a hill. We install filters to act as a catchment for soil and sediment that runs off the fields during rainstorms and snowmelt.

Method 4: Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is another reliable method that not only aids in water quality, but the farmers who use this approach also see increased crop yields. In Vermont, corn and hay crops are often rotated every two to three years. Evidence shows that crop rotation helps to build up organic matter and increases soil quality.

Method 5: Land Retirement

The fifth best method is ‘land retirement.’ It is a cost-effective BMP that reduces phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain by taking highly erodible land out of production.

The land is managed in two ways after retirement:

  • by letting it grow naturally
  • planting trees

These approaches prevent erosion and runoff.

In 2011, we conducted a study with Stone Environmental in the Missisquoi watershed. We looked at how the topography of the land, slope, and soil type, as well as the variety of crops grown, effects runoff. We discovered this area had highly erodible land and is a Critical Source Area (CSA). When CSA’s are identified, you could retire this land from row crop production if one of the other methods will not work.

The USDA NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and VAAFM’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) pay landowners to retire the land.

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Act 64 Establishes Best Management Practices for Agriculture

After the passage of Act 64 in 2015, as we mentioned earlier, each small farm has undergone a review and received a report. Periodically, farms will receive additional visits, and following each one, the farm gets another report with further recommendations and timeframes.

We can help you partner with the UVM Extension, State, and Federal programs to source financial assistance for:

  • equipment purchases
  • nutrient management
  • soil retention

We encourage you to review the report from the inspector and nutrient management plans to get started.

We’ll help you initiate BMPs and guide you through sourcing financial and project assistance.

Consider Water Quality When Applying Conservation Farming Practices

If you’re seeking to implement new conservation farming practices to improve soil health, water quality, or want to learn more about one you’ve already adopted, take some time to review the many resources available.

The impact you can have on water quality is endless. It all comes down to what we’re doing to manage the impact, whether as a farmer or landowner, we can all make a difference. Conservation farming is all about preserving the quality and fertility of the soil and still having a positive impact on water quality.

Need Funding Assistance?

Applying conservation farming practices doesn’t have to break the bank. We can help you write and source grants for projects on your land.