Farming with Water Quality in Mind: Holyoke Farm

By Kaitlin Hayes, Vermont Agency of Agricuture, Food & Markets

Less than three miles outside of St. Albans City, there are few pieces of evidence displaying the construction that took place over the summer and fall months of 2017 on Holyoke Farm, except for the presence of a newly finished manure storage facility.

Holyoke Farm is a Certified Small Farm Operation owned and operated by Jack and Heather Brigham, with the help of their children. The storage facility has been a long time in the making, and was made possible through funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Market’s Best Management Practice (BMP) Program. The BMP Program provides cost share funding to farmers for implementation of projects that will improve water quality within the State. The Brigham’s were responsible for approximately 20% of the cost of the project, some of which was covered through a Dairy Improvement Grant through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). The total cost of the pit will amount to nearly $180,000.

Holyoke Farm has been in the Brigham family since the early 1700’s. Jack and his brother bought the farm from their parents and started milking in the early 1970’s. The farm historically milked a larger, conventional herd; now, the 60-70 registered Jerseys milked by the Brigham’s are Certified Organic. The farm also houses over 100 chickens and sells fresh eggs, in addition to running a large-scale maple sugar operation.

The Brigham’s first built a manure storage facility in 1980; it was one of the first in the area and was dug in the soil. As time progressed, science advanced, and standards for storage structures changed, the Brigham’s began engaging in conversations with NRCS about a new structure. The new storage facility is capable of well over 200 days of storage, in a pit that is lined with the same thick, impervious 60 mm poly-plastic that is used to line landfills. The bottom of the pit was completely drained and filled with sand to cushion the bottom and assure that nothing would puncture the plastic, before the liner was laid down.

Jack was initially opposed to building the new pit. He explained, “It’s quite a project, and manure is produced every day on a farm. You put hay in the front end, and when it comes out the other end, it doesn’t look anything like hay anymore. But we knew we needed to make some changes.” The timing of the project was complex, as the old pit had to be completely emptied. The project began in July of 2017, and was completed in early December of 2017. Jack hopes his sons will eventually take over the farm, they have some concerns about the hardships with the current dairy market and farming in general, but worrying about runoff or leaching from manure storage will no longer be a concern. About ten years ago, Jack and Heather put the farm into a land trust, ensuring that the land will never be developed.

The farm is located in the St. Albans watershed, one of the most impaired watersheds in the State. The Brigham’s realized their location adjacent to the Rock Creek, a small stream that eventually empties into the St. Alban’s Bay of Lake Champlain, and implemented many conservation practices that improve water quality by decreasing runoff potential - such as utilizing a dragline system, installation of laneways for livestock to travel on, vegetated buffer strips, and livestock exclusion fencing from waterways on the property. Several of these projects were also made possible with both federal and state funding.

Jack shared his thoughts on the progress and evolution of farmers’ efforts to improve water quality: “The farmers are truly making an effort to be responsible, way more than 20 years ago. We all got to live here together, we all got to keep our waters clean, and I don’t know of any farmers (and I know most all of them around here), that aren’t doing all they can to try to make things better and not cause issues…We’re working on it, but it took 100 years to get it this way, it’s not going to come back overnight.”