Pastoral Vermont Balks at 'Ag Factories'

Big farms - and new regulations - seen as encroaching on the state's family farms.

It all started when a big, out-of-state corporation bought a couple of hundred acres in Vermont's northern farm country near the Canadian border.

Instead of buying a couple of hundred head of dairy cows and starting a proper milking operation, the Canadian upstarts plopped down 100,000 chickens and generated a big stink, according to its neighbors, both literally and figuratively.

The multitude of layers, as the chickens at the Canadian-owned Vermont Egg Farm are called, generate about 2 million pounds of manure a year. That, the neighbors say, creates great wafts of foul offensive odors, a pesky fly population, and something even more onerous to most Vermont farmers: calls to regulate agricultural operations.

"I don't really see it as farming. That's an 'ag factory,' " says state Rep. Patricia Smith (D), who calls herself an "unabashed tree-hugger." "An ag factory is a business, but it's not the kind of business we want representing our state."

Bucolic conundrum

The controversy has created a conundrum for many Vermonters. Farms in this bucolic state, known for its rolling green hills and cow-dotted byways, have long been almost sacrosanct. There's even a law that exempts them from nearly all state and local regulations. But when Vermonters think "farm," they think of family farms. Agribusiness is still a relatively foreign concept here. And many people would like to keep it that way.

So when the big fuss over the mega-egg farm cracked open, some people said it was time to take away the farmer's regulatory carte blanche - at least for very large operations. The head of Vermont's environmental board, the agriculture commissioner, and the secretary of natural resources spent the summer fashioning a piece of legislation that would require large farms - those with more than 700 cows or 100,000 chickens - to get a permit.

"We are seeing types of farming that are coming into the state that really don't follow along with our traditional Vermont values, and in those cases we need to have a process in place where the impact on the community can be considered," says state Sen. Elizabeth Ready (D).

But instead of an attempt to protect the state's unique values, some farmers see it as another shot fired in a quiet, but continuing, regulatory assault. They contend the legislature's been busy over the past few years chipping away at their independence. Code 4495, the law that exempts farms from state and local regulation, was amended a few years ago. It now says farms are exempt as long as they comply with "accepted agricultural practices." That means they have to deal with their manure in environmentally sound ways.

"We were exempt, then we had to build manure pits, then they told us when and where we can and can't spread it - now this," says Bob Norris, who's got 175 dairy cows on his farm in Bridport. "I think we're losing our freedom, slowly. It's just going to get worse and worse."

Vermont, like much of the rest of the country, has also been losing farms over the past few generations. In 1950, the Green Mountain State had 11,000 farms. Today, there are 1,850, and many are just hanging on - 144 farms have gone out of business during the past year and a half. There were ads for five farm auctions in the local papers this week. With milk prices at a 20-year low, many farmers are worried.

"With increased regulation, more farms are going to be abandoned because of the increased costs," says Margaret Barnes, who works a 400-head dairy farm in Addison, Vt., with her husband.

But with about one-third of the state's economy based on agriculture and one-third on tourism, which is dependent to some extent on agriculture, no state official wants to hurt the farming community.

"This is not an attempt to diminish the interest in larger farms, just to make sure they're reviewed in an appropriate fashion," says John Ewing, chairman of the state's environmental board. "In fact, improving the farming environment is absolutely critical to so many things in our state, including the quality of life and protecting the rural landscape."

And not all farmers are so adamantly opposed to the bill. Eugene Audet's family owns a large farm, by Vermont standards, and he has no problem at all with the proposed legislation.

"It will help us in dealing with our neighbors, let them know that we're responsible and not polluting," says Mr. Audet, whose family works 2,400 acres and milks 700 cows here.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency already requires the state to regulate large farms to ensure their fertilizers aren't polluting nearby waterways. This new proposal would add for regulatory review: odor, noise, traffic, insects and other pests, impact on municipal services, and setback boundaries for new construction.

Pendulum of regulations

"The 4495 exemption is a pendulum that swung too far one way," says Clark Hinsdale, head of the Vermont Farm Bureau, "and it looks like we're about to swing it too far the other way."

The legislation would also allow "interested" parties to appeal any permit. That also bothers Mr. Hinsdale, who owns a 311-acre strawberry farm in Charlotte with 48 others.

"All you need is one neighbor with one problem and one lawyer and you can be tied up for months, even years," says Hinsdale. "We have to be sure that this doesn't give people the right to cause trouble way beyond what was intended."

The proposed bill will be taken up when the state's part-time legislature convenes in January. Passage is likely, say both Republicans and Democrats.

"We do have to be careful of overcontrol in Vermont. We can't regulate, regulate, regulate," says state Rep. Anthony Dominick (D). "But ... we're really just doing some backtracking. We should have done this before operations like that egg farm started up."

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