Saturday, June 30, 2012


This is a recap of a presentation I gave at the Vermont Environmental Symposium at Middlebury College on March 20th of 2012. 

Vermont has a rich history of land use and of various approaches that have been used over the years to address environmental stewardship.  Laws, as well as regulations, have changed over time based upon scientific knowledge and public sentiment.  This blog posting traces some of these changes and why they may have occurred.


The majority of white settlements in Vermont occurred after the French and Indian War when the English gained control over the territory.  It is hard for many to believe today that Burlington, Vermont’s most populous city, was largely a forested area in 1792.  The early settlers cleared the forests, and the first commercial enterprise was the sale of potash, in great demand in England at the time.  Based upon what took place in clearing the land, it is often said that the settlers believed the soil was inexhaustible (Annual Report of Vt. State Board of Agriculture, 1872).  “These settlers practiced excessive and continuous cropping, they deluded the land for timber, and they did long and continued grazing of pastures without rotation.”  It was said  that “land was abundant and easy to acquire so it encouraged poor farming practices.” ( Agricultural Sciences, Vol II, Fertilizer Use in North America).

Some recognized the environmental problems associated with these land use practices.  One discussion said “early agriculture might be classified as mining or land speculation since the profits lay in the destruction of the most valuable asset of the country, the forest, in the destruction of the soil….” ( The Vermont of Today).  One of the most famous was Vermont Congressman George Perkins Marsh’s speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County on September 30, 1847 (these agricultural societies were the early places for education for farmers and predated the Extension Service).    In this famous and controversial speech, Marsh draws attention to the human impact on climate, the problems caused by the destruction of woods, and especially the effect on water and soil.  He calls for radical new approaches to environmental stewardship. “Some improvements”, he said, “are well worthy the zealous efforts of the agricultural associations of the state.”  He would go on to write many articles on this subject to include a report for the State Legislature in 1857 on the effect of the deforestation of forests on fish populations, but his most famous was “MAN AND NATURE” in 1864.   Others soon began to express similar views.  In a speech to the Vermont State Board of Agriculture in St. Johnsbury in 1871 on “The Fertility of our Soil, How Lost and How Restored,” Vermont farmer Jonathan Lawrence stated that soil fertility could best be improved by 1) composting of wastes, 2) composting muck and other key matter in swamps and low lands, 3) bringing back from the ocean salt, fish and other substances and testing these for value to the land, 4) planting green crop and top dressing with lime and fertilizer, 5) adopting the English custom that products from the soil should go to the market on foot and not in a wagon, and 6) the planting of forest crops on eroding soils.  Others had similar views at that time.  In a speech to the State Board of Agriculture in 1872, the Rev. G.F. Wright of Bakersfield stated, “The most valuable properties of his manures go off in unseen forms to infect the air with disagreeable odors or hurry down the streams to feed the Cod in the Gulf of Newfoundland.  Only by thorough and careful planning can the farmer save and utilize these elements.”  One other said, in what appears to be both a serious and humorous context “…a man, to be a good and successful farmer, must be smarter then the Governor of the State.  The study of manures is the radiating point of success.” (1887 State Board of Agriculture).


The Experiment Station: 
With the recognition by the 1800’s that Vermont farming and land clearing had dramatically changed the environment, actions had begun to change things as Marsh recommended in his speech to the Rutland County Agricultural Society.  The Land Grant Act in 1862 followed by the Hatch Act of 1887 that created the Experiment Station at the University of Vermont brought forth increased scientific focus and education to these concerns.  Both these initiatives were strongly supported by the then State Board of Agriculture.  For example in the 15th Report of the State Board of Agriculture in 1894-95 it is stated “work of Experiment Stations and agricultural schools on plant food, and functions of manure and proper use and abuse of elements of fertility have been of benefit in establishing the loss of fertility to farms by improper management.”  In establishing the Experiment Station at UVM as a partnership between the State, USDA, and the Land Grant College, the Vermont General Assembly in 1886 stated that it “was to conduct research in field of agriculture with special reference to conditions in the State of Vermont.”  A number of Experiment Station publications and later Extension efforts continued to address soil fertility (See 1908 Vt. Experiment Station Bulletin 135 by Dean Hills et al on Soil deterioration and soil humus).

Commercial Fertilizers: 
Commercial fertilizers were increasingly being used to help bring back fertility to the soils in the mid 1800’s, when they were introduced to North America (see Agricultural Sciences, Vol II).  As a result and due to concern over the quality of products sold, the State in 1882 passed a law authorizing fertilizer sales.  A license from the State of Vermont was required.  UVM was authorized to test the samples at $5.00 for each.  It was reported at the time “one of the greatest wastes in Vermont was over fertilization.”  In the First Annual Report of the State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1887 it is stated “the Station is prepared to analyze and test fertilizers, cattle foods, seeds, soils, milk and other agricultural materials and products, to identify grasses, weeds and useful or injurious insects and to give information on various subjects of agricultural science for the sue and advantage of the citizens of Vermont.”  One early analysis during this period was of the waters of Lake Champlain and of various proposed supply sources for the City of Burlington.

Vermont Commission on Country Life, 1931: 
This was one of the most comprehensive studies of all aspects of Vermont that had been done up until that time.  It followed the 1927 Flood and was intended to identify recommendations for rebuilding all aspects of Vermont and Vermont life. There are some very important assessments in this publication relative to land use.  One assessment, which had been stated before by others, was “…that the soils of Vermont are best suited to grass.”  Another was that no one has the right to pollute a stream and that further pollution could be prevented and the damage of the past partially reversed.  For farming, there was a recommendation that “farmers use super phosphate as a supplement to manure, with 200 pounds per acre per year usually being sufficient.”  The emphasis during this period of time focused increasingly on soil fertility and management.


The period leading up to the 1930’s was the educational approach backed up by the latest science on resource use and management and by the establishment of the Land Grant College at the University of Vermont in 1863, the Experiment Station in 1887, and the Extension Service in 1914.  These efforts brought science and education to the farmers’ doors.  The 1930’s and the passage of the Agriucultural Adjustment Act and Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act brought an increased focus to soil resource use and farm production.

The Great Depression impacted the farm sector and a dust storm that swept across the country (see The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan) realigned the focus of agricultural programs in the United States.  “Rural Electric, subsidized lime and fertilizers, subsidized credit, milk market orders, classified pricing were essential to the development and survival of Vermont agriculture.” (see , The University of Vermont the First Two Hundred Years, by Robert Daniels).  Relative to land use, the Agricultural Conservation Program, created in the federal Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, authorized government cost sharing of conservation programs with farmers.  The intent of the ACP was to reduce over-production (surplus removal) on designated soil depleting crops as a way to better stabilize pricing and to raise the purchasing power of farmers in the United States.

The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936:
This Act put forth a structure for addressing soil erosion in the United States.  What followed was a model soil conservation district law for the States to enact as a way to establish a federal-state partnership between the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and each State.  Enacted in Vermont during this period, Conservation Districts were originally the citizen branches of the USDA Soil Conservation Services.  They now exist as not for profit municipalities with broad functions to address land use practices for improvement of soil and water resources.  While they have broad regulatory authority under state law, their approach historically has focused on education and cost sharing with farmers.


It might be argued that changes in policy are often impacted by good science, critical events, public perception, and the strengths of various influence makers and lobbying groups, but not necessarily in that order.  The dust bowl that swept the country in the 1930’s changed conservation policy. President Roosevelt is said to have first tasted prairie dust in 1934 when it blew into the White House. (see page 306, The Worst Hard Times).  Likewise, the Great Depression changed the focus of federal programs aimed at boosting farm income.

Crisis relative to water quality:
It was 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.  The fire caught national attention, in Time and National Geographic Magazine, and resulted in the passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (see Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing A History of Environmental Protection by Jonathan H. Adler).  There had been federal action relative to water before this Act (1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, and the 1948 Water Pollution Control Act) that provided federal loans for wastewater treatment plant construction and grants for state and local agencies to investigate pollution sources.  It was not until the 1972 Act, however, that there was an active approach with the states to address water quality by applying water quality standards to not only interstate waters but to state waters as well, thereby encompassing all surface waters in the entire country.  The 1972 law established the Section 208 Planning process with the states; Section 318 management plans to address non point source pollution, and Section 303(d) TMDL, or total maximum daily load for water quality and Section 404, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over all navigable rivers.

The 1960’s were the activist period for environmental laws and regulations at both the Federal and State level. 

  • Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968
  • Conservation as prerequisite for participation in USDA programs, sodbuster and swamp buster, conservation reserve program (CRP), Farm Bill of 1985.
  • Clean Air Act of 1970
  • National Environmental Policy Act 1970
  • Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 (referred to as Clean Water Act)
  • Endangered Species Act of 1973
  • Safe Drinking Water Act 1974

Note: The Food Security Act of 1985 is considered to be the turning point in agricultural conservation policy in the United States with the shift in focus from agricultural resource conservation management to environmental management with sodbuster and swamp buster provisions.  Also, until the 1996 Farm Bill was enacted, no conservation programs dealt explicitly with animal waste management issues, EQUIP or Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

State of Vermont: 
Vermont has traditionally taken a more activist approach to environmental issues.   The historic Act 250 in 1970 established procedures for land development and environmental stewardship.  Special preference is given to statewide and prime soils for agricultural production.  Other laws have addressed our resource issues as well.  Within agriculture, Vermont has been aggressive with its regulatory approach, with rules for medium farm and large farm operations, and nutrient management plans.   “ Vermont law provides that persons engaged in farming and following accepted agricultural practices as described by the Secretary of Agriculture by rule shall be presumed to be in compliance with water quality standards.”  There are two kinds of enforceable standards: 1) farmers must follow Accepted Agriculture Practices, and 2) the Secretary of Agriculture may require best management practices on a case-by-case basis.   The law requires that standards be enforceable and cost effective.  Vermont works closely with other state agencies, the University, and with USDA, NRCS and FSA on cooperative approaches to the issues to include the Lake Champlain Basin Planning Program ( a cooperative approach to water quality and resource issues between Vermont, New York and the Province of Quebec).


We all have certain memories of how things were and how they are today.  As a young man growing up in a small Vermont town on a hillside farm I remember vividly watching my grandfather spreading super phosphate in the “gutter”, a practice recommended at that time.  Later when I was a young Army ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) student going through summer training at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts in 1966 we were told not to go near the Nashua River that flowed through the area as it was highly polluted and had a dark brown color.  Today that same river is pristine!

Over the years, as the science has become better and as treatment plants have addressed through technology point sources, there has been increased focus on nonpoint source pollution. Some think that a probable model for addressing nonpoint source and for work between the states and rural and urban interests may be the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Lake Champlain likewise is under discussion relative to the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and nonpoint source loading.  What is clear today is that issues must be addressed from a watershed basis and thus old conservation district lines are further blurred requiring greater collaboration and coordination (See National Blue Ribbon Commission Recommendations).

Some years ago, in the early 1990’s when I worked for the Farm Credit Banks for the Northeast, I served on a market incentives workgroup that was part of a 1994-95 National Geographic Society Panel on Non-Point Source Pollution and Water Quality.  One of the recommendations coming from that panel was to create market based approaches or incentives for addressing nonpoint source pollution. On the lending side, for example, a certain basis point reduction in interest rates if farmers followed good management practices was recommended…something like a reduction in insurance premiums for certain safety practices.  These approaches are often controversial, but they are beginning to be discussed and in some cases established.  Over time, based upon historical information, proper resource use and management has required:

  • Good information on the cause and effect of various land use practices,
  • Education and technical assistance to those using the land and water resources,
  • Cooperation and coordination at all levels,
  • Financial assistance, and
  • All the above backed up by cost effective and practical rules and regulations.

References and Sources for this blog posting

  • History of Vermont, Volume 12
  • Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1872
  • Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, Vt. Commission on Country Life, 1931
  • Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1894-95
  • Address by Congressman George Perkins Marsh before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, September 30, 1877
  • Hills, Jones, and Cutler. 1908. Soil Deterioration and Soil Humus.  In Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 135, Burlington, UVM College of Agriculture
  • The Vermont of Today by Arthur Stone, Vol. 1, Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc. N.Y. 1929.
  • The University of Vermont, The First Two Hundred Years, by Robert V. Daniels.  The University Press of New England, 1971.
  • The Vermont Encyclopedia, edited by John J. Duffy, Samuel B. Hand, Ralph Orth, University Press of New England, 2003
  • State of Vermont, First Annual Report of the State Agriculture Experiment Station, 1887
  • Possible Legislative Constraints to Intensive Silver culture Practices in Northern Forest Types, by Brendan J. Whittaker, Chief Information and Education, Agency of Environmental Conservation, Montpelier.
  • History of Lamoille Conservation District
  • History of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Butler Soil and Water Conservation District, 2010
  • Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection by Jonathan H. Adler, Assistant Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University.
  • Production and Crop Soil Management by Joseph Frank Cox, B.S.A. Professor of Farm Crop[s, Michigan Agricultural College.
  • Vermont Enforceable Provisions Applicable to Nonpoint Source Water Pollution at http//
  • The Struggle Between Man and Nature—Agriculture, Nonpoint Source Pollution, and Clean Water: How to Implement the State of Vermont’s Phosphorous TMDL Within the Lake Champlain basin by Lara D. Guercio in Vt. Journal of Environmental Law, Vol 12.
  • 1973 Wisconsin Law Review. 893. Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 by Frederick Rasmussen.
  • Reauthorizing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act by Errol L. Tyler, Counsel, Houser Subcommittee on Water Resources
  • Growing A Nation, The Story of American Agriculture in
  • USDA, History of NRCS, 75 Years Helping People Help the Land: A Brief History of NRCS
  • The National Agricultural Law Center, University of AK School of Law. Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service: History, Policy and Programs by Karen R. Twitchell.
  • Analyses of Waters From Lake Champlain and From Various Proposed Supplies for the City of Burlington, in Report of the Vermont State Agricultural Experiment Station, 1889-90.
  • Choices Magazine, History of Agricultural Price Support and Adjustment Programs, 1933-84
  • Choices Magazine, History and Outlook for Farm Bill Conservation Programs, by Zachary Cain and Stephen Lovejoy, 4th Qtr 2004
  • U.S. Agricultural Conservation Policy and Programs: History, Trends and Implications by Craig Cox, Woods Institute for Environment, Stanford University
  • The Worst Hard Time, The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006
  • Fertilizer Use in North America: Types and Amounts, by T. L. Roberts, and D.W. Dibb, in Agricultural Sciences Vol. II.
  • National Agricultural Landscapes Forum, Blue Ribbon Panel, of NRCS, the Farm Foundation, and the American Farmland Trust, April 7 & 8, 2011, Washington, D.C.
  • 1994-95 National Geographic Society Panel on Non-Point Source Pollution and Water Quality

Trivia:  8,000 spruce seedlings ordered from Europe for planting at the Downer State Park in Vermont were lost when the Titanic sank. (From Vermont Division of Forestry, The History of Forestry in Vermont)

Edition No. 14, June 20, 2012

1 comment:

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