On October 28, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VAAFM) released draft required agricultural practices (RAPs). These rules would, for the first time, apply to small Vermont farms.

The rules are intended to control and reduce agricultural nonpoint source pollution and nutrient losses from farm fields to surface and groundwater. The goal is to protect water quality, particularly that of Lake Champlain. The lake has experienced reoccurring algal blooms due to high levels of phosphorus entering the basin.

RAPs are standards that must be followed when conducting agricultural activities in the state. They apply to animal waste management and disposal, soil amendment applications, and crop production and management.

The state legislature directed VAAFM to draft the RAPs under Act 64, signed into law on June 16, 2015. Act 64 amended and enacted multiple requirements related to water quality in the state. Act 64 requires that the RAPs include requirements for small farm certification, nutrient storage, soil health, buffer zones, livestock exclusion from streams, and nutrient management.

Additionally, on Aug. 14, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued phosphorus total maximum daily loads (TMDL) for the 12 Vermont segments of Lake Champlain. Successful implementation of the RAPs will help Vermont meet its Act 64 goals as well as the Lake Champlain TMDLs.

VAAFM also will establish a program certifying small farms and training operators. With more than 7000 farms in the state, according to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Ag Census, a significant portion of small farms could be required to certify compliance with the RAPs. Vermont’s large and medium farms have required certification under soil conservation and waste management rules for some time, but small farms were mostly exempt.

VAAFM will formalize the draft rules this winter and will then begin the formal rulemaking process in spring. Although public comment ended on Dec. 18, VAAFM will seek additional input during the draft rewrite as well as the formal rulemaking period. The RAPs are expected to be finalized July 1, 2016.

Federal, state, and local organizations — including Vermont’s new Clean Water Fund established by Act 64 — will provide expanding technical and financial assistance. This will help farms of all sizes access resources that assist in the planning and implementation of management changes and conservation practices to improve water quality on farms.