Roadside signs highlight farmers’ leadership on water quality
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For Immediate Release
August 15, 2018
Jeannie Bartlett, District Manager
Franklin County Conservation District
Jeanne.firstname.lastname@example.org or (802) 528-4176
Roadside signs highlight Vermont farmers’ leadership on water quality
More than 7,000 acres of corn fields were planted with a cover crop in Franklin County last fall, and thousands more acres received other conservation practices such as no-till planting and conversion to grass crops. In fact, according to a new scorecard by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Vermont ranks first in the nation for use of conservation practices. New roadside signs will help highlight this work that can otherwise be very hard to see.
“People driving around don’t necessarily realize that a lot of the farms here are already doing a lot for soil conservation and water quality work,” said Jeff Sanders, who assists farmers with many of these practices through his role at UVM Extension. “In the Lake Carmi watershed, for example, about 300 acres have been seeded down to hay in the last 3 years. There’s only approximately 200 acres of corn in the watershed at this point, and 75% of them are managed using no-till, cover crops or both.”
The signs all share the tag line, “For my land, For our water,” because conservation practices usually improve the health of soils and crops as well as protecting water quality.
Some of the work is required by Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices, and some is entirely voluntary. Some is paid for in part using state or federal dollars, and some is done entirely on the farmer’s dime. However it comes about, all the work is important and worthy of greater public understanding.
Cover cropping, or “green manure,” is the practice of growing any plants for the purpose of covering the soil, especially through the late fall, winter and spring when many fields would otherwise be bare. The plants’ roots and leaves protect the soil from erosion and build soil organic matter, retaining valuable soil in fields and keeping it out of waterways. Cover crops also hold nutrients through the winter and release them in the spring, providing a boost to the spring crop and reducing the potential for nutrients to leach from the soil during the winter.
Perennial crops improve soil health and water quality because they have deep roots, diverse plant mixes, and never leave the ground uncovered. Although the signs simply name “grass,” farmers usually grow a diverse mix of grasses and legumes. This hay and pasture is an important forage source for most farmers, and in fact many Vermont farms don’t grow anything but perennial grass-legume crops. Farmers who do grow annuals, however, plant grass crops in strategic areas like along streams, in steep areas, through low-lying swales, and in contoured strips. In all of these places, the grass crop serves to prevent sediment and nutrients from leaving fields and entering streams.
No-till planting is a method used to plant and grow a crop such as corn while leaving a year-round cover of living or residual plant material on the field. The practice boosts soil organic matter, increases soil tilth and infiltration, and protects the soil from erosion. While the benefits are significant, the learning curve can be a challenge. Gardeners can imagine trying to plant their vegetables from seed without using any tools to turn-over or even loosen the soil – except on a scale of hundreds of acres. It can take a bit of experimentation, and each farm and each soil is different. A number of farmers have figured it out to a point where they see a significant benefit, and they would consider it risky to till their fields at this point. The practice is catching on.
“I was so excited to see the signs along Franklin Road this morning,” said Sarah Larose, a Soil Conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. “So many of the farmers I work with are leaders in soil conservation and water quality protection, and I hope these signs will help their efforts be more visible and celebrated.”
The signs were produced by the Franklin County Conservation District, supported in part by a grant from the VT Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. A donation of $5 per sign will help the District continue the signs program after grant funding runs out, but the District’s priority is to get the signs out on the landscape regardless of donations. Signs are available statewide from Conservation Districts and other partners.
There are many ways farmers are increasingly managing their farmland to protect water quality. You can learn more about these practices at vacd.org/conservation-practices, or by visiting your local field office for the USDA-NRCS, UVM Extension, or Conservation District.
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Information on the Franklin County Conservation District please visit: franklincountynrcd.org
The Franklin County Conservation District is one of 14 conservation districts throughout Vermont. The District’s mission is to promote land use that supports human livelihoods and sustains ecological function in Franklin County, VT. The Conservation District empowers and convenes landowners and land-users to prioritize and address natural resource concerns, and recognizes water quality and the continuance of our land-based economy as key concerns for Franklin County today.
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Photo credit: Brodie Haenke
Caption: Roadside signs advertise water-protecting conservation practices. Here, a cornfield in the Lake Carmi watershed that was planted without tillage and already has a cover crop growing under the corn’s canopy. The cover crop will protect the soil through the fall, winter and spring.
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Photo credit: Brodie Haenke
Caption: This field in the Lake Carmi watershed was seeded down to perennial hay this spring. The sod retains soil and nutrients, and provides a different part of cows’ dietary needs than the corn that previously grew here. The field will continue to need manure fertilizer to grow healthy crops.
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