Maybe Vermont farmers aren’t so pure after all

Will Allen, writer and organic farmer, has issued a scathing report on Vermont farmers’ use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The report is based on official state data, which shows that between 2002 and 2012, herbicide use nearly doubled on Vermont farms.

Farmers used 1.54 pounds of herbicide per acre in 2002; that number increased to 3.01 pounds per acre in 2012.

That, in itself, is appalling — especially for a sector that wraps itself in the pure-Vermont blanket when it comes to political issues like, say, the pollution of Lake Champlain.

Allen’s report focuses mainly on herbicide and pesticide use, which spiked at the same time GMO corn* became nearly universal on Vermont farms. You know, the stuff that’s supposed to reduce the need for killer chemicals. (See note at end of this post.)

*A factoid for those impressed by our GMO labeling law: 96 percent of corn grown in Vermont is genetically modified. Ninety-six percent!

Gee, maybe Monsanto sold us a bill of goods?

But there’s another aspect that really struck me.

Allen found that dairy farmers were using 16.5 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer on 92,000 acres of farmland as of 2012. A decade earlier, dairy businesses applied half as much, or about 8.9 million pounds of chemical nutrients on about the same amount of acreage, according to data from the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

Huh. So they claim to be doing everything they can to minimize impact on Lake Champlain, but they’re using far more fertilizer than ever before?

Something’s wrong with this picture.

If you’re looking for clarification, don’t depend on the Agency of Agriculture. It has the same kind of dual role — regulator and promoter — that caused so much trouble for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development over the EB-5 program.

And the Ag Agency’s response to Allen’s report was classc promoter-speak. Cary Giguere, chief of the Agriculture Resource Management Division:

“He uses a limited selected subset of data to tell a story,” Giguere said by email. “He may have some valid points, however we respectfully feel that it does not capture and present the entire story.”

Ag Secretary Chuck Ross points out that the raw tonnage of chemical killers may be higher, but the actual chemicals have changed.

“He doesn’t mention there are chemicals that are no longer in use that are more toxic or are a higher exposure risk,” Ross said. “Those subtleties are not mentioned in the report. As an agency, we have moved away from some chemicals and limited others over time.”

Which likely mitigates the raw numbers, but doesn’t entirely explain them. And it does nothing to address the increased use of fertilizers.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to square the numbers with Ross’ insistence that farmers are doing everything they can to limit their impact on the environment.

Allen’s numbers may not tell the entire story, but they do tell a compelling one: Vermont agriculture wields potent political influence thanks to its bucolic, traditional image, but that image is at best an incomplete picture of modern Vermont farming. And, in my opinion, a misleading one.


NOTE.  One of my readers pointed out that planting Monsanto’s GMO corn allows greater use of its tame herbicide RoundUp, which might contribute to the general increase in herbicide use. However, two things:

— Monsanto claims that using its GMO corn allows farmers to use less RoundUp. Granted, “claims” and “sales techniques” may be two different things… however…

— Vermont farmers are using a lot more than just RoundUp:

But the most common herbicides in use are products like Lumax, manufactured by the Swiss company Syngenta, which contain persistent, active ingredients like atrazine and metolachlor. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of herbicides farmers use are some combination of atrazine, metolachlor and a handful of other chemicals, according to state officials.

10 thoughts on “Maybe Vermont farmers aren’t so pure after all

  1. sharon

    Almost any large farm is going to be using a lot of chemicals. Any barn that you go by and see cows in it in the daytime is going to be using a lot of chemicals. The fields around it are growing corn and grain instead of grass to feed the cows and the farmer is using chemicals to grow them.

    1. Ed

      Yes, but as the report says, the amount of herbicides used has *doubled*. That’s the whole point, not whether farms use chemicals, of course they do. The Agency of Agriculture tried to gloss it over with a “sure it’s doubled, but they reduced the use of more dangerous things”. Well, the state also says that 70-80% of the herbicides used are atrazine, metolachlor, and a handful of others. Those are not short-lived “don’t worry about them” herbicides.

      1. canoetieu

        Not” of course they do,” but in this world in this time and with our physical and economic dis ease it is just stupid to continue to do it. It’s time farmers began in greater numbers to use their brains and energy to work with the natural world to create nourishment. Sound idealistic? Tough! That’s the way we’ve known we have to go for at least 60 years. Get to it!

  2. newzjunqie

    VT needs to step up our unique brand. I’d like to see an even more robust organic market establishing new rules or making the present rules stricter to differentiate between the two.

    This hopefully will result in higher profit for truly organic & the rest eating their dust.

  3. Brooke Paige

    As to the GMO issue, the time for concern over GMO based food stuffs should have been 20 – 30 years ago when they were first being introduced into the food system. Today 80 – 85% of our foods (and 90%+ of processed foods) contain some GMO based ingredients. If Vermont’s GMO law is allowed to go forward, nearly every product on the grocery shelf will be labeled “Contains GMO ingredients” – information which will be of little use to the consumer.

    As to the chemicals, especially fertilizers, used by farmers; GMO crops are supposed to need less herbicides, pesticides and insecticides, which appears to be more sales pitch than fact. Independent of pollution from farm runoff, the major source of pollution in Lake Champlain is from sewer discharge from the various city sewage treatment plants on both the VT and NY. shores. These discharges are the result of insufficient capacity and overflows (discharges) that occur during severe rainstorms. The systems in these cities have combined sanitary and storm collection and it is this design defect that creates to troubles. No one wants to talk about correcting this problem because will be time consuming and expensive to remediate and it is easier to point the blame at the farmers, who are also part of the problem, rather than to take responsibility for their own part and move toward correcting their contribution.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sorry, but the facts are that municipal runoff is a much smaller contributor to Lake Champlain’s nutrient load than is agriculture. Every ranking of polluters I’ve seen always has farms first. Many of our water-treatment systems are inadequate, sure, but they don’t do as much harm as agriculture.

  4. katrinkavt

    “Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%. The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

  5. Brooke Paige

    Phosphorus and nitrogen are primarily the result of farming activities, however these two chemicals are far from the only pollutants of concern as the state works to improve water quality in Lake Champlain.

    Other Pollutants of significant concern include:

    NATURAL ORGANIC DETRITUS AND ORGANIC WASTE from waste water treatment plants, failing septic systems, and agricultural and urban runoff, acts as a food source for water-borne bacteria

    WATERBORNE HUMAN PATHOGENS are disease-causing organisms which include bacteria, viruses, and protozoa from fecal matter of humans and other warm-blooded animals. In surface waters, the source of human fecal matter is sewage from a malfunctioning wastewater treatment plant or septic system.

    HEAVY METALS in aquatic systems, the heavy metals of greatest concern are mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, copper, zinc, nickel, chromium, aluminum, antimony and silver. These metals are toxic to organisms above specific threshold concentrations but many of them, such as copper and zinc are also essential for metabolism at lower concentrations. Lead and cadmium are considered non-essential to biota and have no known biological function. Toxic quantities of heavy metals can be present in industrial, municipal, and urban runoff, and by definition are harmful to humans and aquatic biota. Increased urbanization and industrialization have increased the levels of these trace elements are discharged from malfunctioning treatment facilities, and others are also deposited atmospherically.

    CHLORIDE is a naturally occurring mineral used in a variety of materials and foods. Natural chloride deposits are not common in Vermont, and chloride concentrations above background are assumed to be associated with human activities. Chloride sources can include industrial effluents, landfill leachate, municipal wastewater, agricultural waste, and septic system effluents. Increasingly, winter road, parking lot and sidewalk maintenance practices are recognized as contributing large amounts of chloride to the environment each year.

    PHARMACEUTICALS AND PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS (PPCPs) pollutants are any products used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons that find their way into water treatment or landfill facilities. PPCPs comprise a diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including prescription and over-the-counter therapeutic drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances, lotions, and cosmetics which are discharged from malfunctioning water treatment facilities.

    While it is easy to place the blame for waterway pollution on agriculture, this is but one source of contaminants in the rich stew of materials that need to be eliminated from our rivers and lakes.

  6. Dave Katz

    Hold on to your codpieces, boys, but those dirty hippies were right again.. Who was it, raised holy hell that GMO crops were not bulletproof gifts from god, like Monsanto was claiming? DFHs. Who again was it, sparked the slow foods movement in the face of the food mega-industry’s earth-destructive ways? Right again! Interesting sidebar: All the members of the European Parliament cheerfully volunteered to be the alleged control group in a blood-sample study(imagine that happening here) Curiously, every single one of them had marked traces of the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide in their bloodstreams, which was the real working hypothesis of the study. Leaving aside the saturation of antidepressants and other pharmaceutical agents in our drinking water…maybe it IS time we gave capitalism a critical look, hmmmm? Before we’re all kilt by it.


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