By Bill Berry
What good things are there to say about the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP)? Let us count some of the ways.
- The program will be piloted this year and next on 10 to 12 farms. It is an example of cooperative conservation at its best with roles for federal, state, and local partners, including the state’s natural resources conservation districts (NRCDs).
- VESP relies on the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool and the Cornell Soil Health Test to evaluate natural resource stewardship on farms within the state. It is the first statewide stewardship program to use RSET.
- The state’s NRCDs will be among those providing assessment, technical assistance, and conservation planning services to farmers. Districts have received $200,000 in state clean water grants from the agriculture department and $600,000 from Department of Environmental Conservation to provide these services. State Extension agronomists will also provide assistance.
- The program is funded by an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant that explored establishing a state regulatory certainty program. Producers that were apart of that exploratory group favored a stewardship program that did not include a certainty component, said Michael Middleman, the partner liaison at the state agriculture agency that administers the program.
While the program focuses on stewardship rather than certainty, some aspects of it are more stringent than other state or federal thresholds. For soil erosion, farms will be required to be at one-half of T, rather than the commonly accepted T. (“T value” is the maximum average annual soil loss expressed as tons per acre per year that will permit current production levels to be maintained economically and indefinitely).
“We have some of the more stringent regulations on the books, and a prerequisite for participation (in the program) is that you have to be in compliance with existing state and federal soil erosion standards,” Middleman said. “With this program, we wanted farmers to get recognition. A farmer could be doing everything right, but they don’t necessarily get that recognition.”
The goal is to make VESP a full-fledged program offered statewide after the two-year pilot, he added. Experiences during the pilot will help with program design. For instance, if the Cornell Soil Health Test is determined to be of value, the state may ask NRCS to customize RSET to incorporate the test as part of the evaluation. “We’re going to use the pilot period to see if we want to shift thresholds. The idea is to have a diversity of farms, different sizes and types,” he said. ”The following year, we hope to have legislation to provide long-term funding for the program.” Funding would cover items like financial and technical assistance to producers who seek stewardship certification, along with signage and other recognition incentives. During the pilot phase, VESP partners will also search for other partners and incentives that could be offered in the future.
Applicants would earn certification for five years upon meeting environmental standards for nutrient management, sediment and erosion control, soil health, greenhouse-gas emissions and carbon sequestration, and pasture health. Recognition-based incentives would include on-farm signage designating the farm as meeting high levels of environmental stewardship.
Farms will be eligible to re-certify after five years. The program also includes periodic verification inspections. If farmers don’t meet VESP standards, they can elect to work with program technicians on a plan to achieve the standards. Applicants working for certification in the pilot may be eligible for financial and technical assistance from existing state and federal cost-share programs, for which there is a dedicated funding pool.
Vermont is no stranger to water quality concerns and regulations. It has had a total maximum daily load designation for Lake Champlain since 2002, and the state has had regulations since 2006. While VESP is voluntary and non-regulatory, farmers will be aware that participation means there will be inspections. “If the farmer isn’t meeting thresholds, they enter the traditional NRCS programs,” Middleman said.
A kickoff event was held recently at the farm of Williston dairy producer Lorenzo Whitcom. Gov. Phil Scott, Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts, and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Alyson Eastman were among participants.