Conservation Buffers Contribute to Farm Resilience

By Alissa White, UVM

Agricultural advisors have been advocating for the implementation of conservation buffers on farms in Vermont for decades, and this practice is now required by the new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs).  You are probably familiar with the RAPs.  These regulations have been put into place to protect the waters of Vermont from nutrient-rich farm runoff.  Per the RAPs, all farms in Vermont are now required to establish and maintain vegetated buffer zones 25 feet from surface water and 10 feet from ditches.  These buffers can be mowed for hay, or planted with woody perennials, but they can’t be tilled or have manure applied to them. 

Plants in the buffer area will help catch nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from leaching through the soil to the waterways, and slow or stop soil from eroding directly into the river water. These are basic benefits that conservation buffers impart for environmental health, but there are many other reasons that farmers in Vermont have been planting and maintaining vegetated buffer areas on their farms.  It’s in the interest of farmers to keep nutrients and soil on farm, so protecting agricultural soils from erosion and leaching is one important benefit that buffers can offer farmland.  But that’s not all.  Conservation buffers planted with elderberry or other fruiting shrubs offer an additional harvest and product diversification to many Vermont farms.  When buffers are vegetated with a diversity of native plants, they offer habitat to birds and other animals and serve as critical wildlife corridors that Vermont’s animals use to travel from one wild place to another.  Along rivers, they contribute the crucial shade that many fish need to survive and thrive in Vermont’s waterways. Many studies have documented that buffers and hedges are also sanctuaries for pollinators and those beneficial insects which help keep many farm pests in balance.

From a resilience perspective, buffers help protect farmland from the impacts of climate change on Vermont farms.  Climate projections for Vermont indicate a dramatic increase in heavy rainfall events, more occurrence of drought, and increased overall temperatures.  The expected increase in heavy rainfall means that agricultural soils in Vermont will endure more erosion, leaching and flooding, and that’s a big reason to maintain conservation buffers, especially for farms in the floodplain.  Buffers have also helped some farmers avoid economic losses in flood-prone soils, simply because they didn’t make and investment into crops which would have been damaged.  This is an important consideration for vegetable farmers who grow high-value crops. 

Buffers planted with trees and woody shrubs, or even just vegetative grass, significantly slow flood waters, protecting farmland from the erosive forces of heavy rainfall and fast moving flood waters.

The use of conservation buffers along waterways are one practice which has been identified to offer resilience benefits to farmers, but there are many more ways which farmers in Vermont and the Northeast are actively adapting to the impacts of a volatile, changing climate.  The USDA Northeast Climate Hub delivers and connects resources across the region to help producers build agricultural resilience to climate change.  Find more information how farmers are adapting to weather variability and explore tools and information: https://www.climatehubs.oce.usda.gov/northeast

The AgBufferBuilder tool was created to customize buffers that maximize nutrient and soil retention for the specific soil and geographic features of your farm.  This is a great resource for learning more about the site specific vulnerabilities of your land to flooding and erosion.  For more information contact Joshua Faulkner, the Farming & Climate Change Program Coordinator for the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture at 802- 656-3495. 

Most UVM Extension agents are familiar with resources for farmers who want to proactively address these challenges.