The Soil Tells A Story: New Pilot Program Will Recognize Farmers Outstanding in Their Field

Pilot program open to agricultural producers committed to excellence in environmental land management.

By Ryan Patch, VT Agency of Ag

You can tell a lot about a farm by looking closely at the soil. That's why the new, statewide program to recognize Vermont's most environmentally friendly farmers will be based on soil-sampling and monitoring. On July 13th, Governor Phil Scott announced the pilot launch of the new Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP), which will use soil-based analysis to identify farmers who are going above and beyond to protect our natural resources.

Surrounded by state and federal officials at the North Williston Cattle Company, owned by the Whitcomb family, Governor Scott emphasized the important role farmers play in Vermont communities.

“Vermont farmers are contributing to our economy and keeping our landscape beautiful and productive,” said Governor Phil Scott. “This new, science-based program will use soil health data to help us identify and honor farmers who are going above and beyond the regulations to protect our natural resources.” 

The program is a partner effort by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Extension.

“We are still accepting VESP applications, and encourage farms of all types and sizes to apply,” added Vermont’s Ag Secretary, Anson Tebbetts. “We want farmers who are going the extra mile to be recognized and celebrated for their efforts.”

Tebbetts noted that many partners across the state and federal government came together to create this innovative program.

Following Governor Scott’s remarks, farmers Lorenzo and Onan Whitcomb gave a tour of their farm, including their robotic milker, and discussed some of the conservation practices they employ, including no-til corn, cover-cropping, and buffer strips.

To apply for the VESP Pilot, farmers must be in compliance with all State and Federal environmental regulations, and be actively farming their land.

Applicants for the VESP Pilot will be selected for participation through a competitive application ranking process on a rolling basis; there is no fee to participate. Five to 10 farms will be accepted into the pilot program, which will inform the final parameters of the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program, launching in 2019. For more information, please visit: http://agriculture.vermont.gov/vesp

About the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program:

Conceptualized in 2016 in response to statewide water-quality and environmental challenges, the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is a voluntary program that encourages and supports local agricultural producers to achieve environmental and agricultural excellence. VESP’s goal is to accelerate water-quality improvements through additional voluntary implementation efforts, and to honor farmers who have already embraced a high level of land stewardship.

Using a combination of on-farm natural resource assessments and Cornell soil health tests, VESP applicants will be evaluated by a team of conservation planners and technical service providers to ascertain current land-use practices. The resulting data is used to set customized environmental goals for the farm, and to enact a long-range plan encompassing a full range of regenerative farming practices.

To be certified under this new program, applicants must meet high environmental standards regarding nutrient management, sediment and erosion control, soil health, greenhouse-gas emissions and carbon sequestration, and pasture health. If the applicant meets the standards in each category, he or she will be awarded with a 5-year certification, an on-farm sign designating the farm as meeting high levels of environmental stewardship, and other recognition-based incentives.

If the farmer does not meet the standards designated under the VESP program, he or she can elect to work with VESP technicians on a conservation plan to implement best-management practices to achieve those standards. While working toward certification, the applicant may be eligible for additional financial and technical assistance to help achieve VESP standards. Once approved, VESP-certified farms are eligible to re-certify after five years, and will have periodic verification assessments to ensure continued land stewardship throughout the duration of the five-year period.

The Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program is a partner effort by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension.