One of the largest farm businesses in the state expanded its operation and constructed a manure pit in Franklin County last summer — without a permit or state oversight.
The state has now retroactively required a permit for the farm expansion.
But an advocate who discovered it while investigating farm pollution is now citing the case as evidence of lax state enforcement over large scale dairy farming.
Michael Colby is a long-time farm and environmental advocate who conducted an on-the-ground investigation last summer when phosphorus pollution (much of it from agriculture) caused widespread toxic algae blooms in northern Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi in Franklin County.
On one of his trips to Franklin County, Colby met Rob Hemond, a local bait shop owner on Lake Carmi.
He was one of those guys “who knew everybody,” Colby said. “And he took us around for days and days.”
Hemond, who died last fall, showed Colby a large manure pit under construction about four miles north of the polluted lake. It's actually not in the Lake Carmi watershed itself but the area in general has many large farms.
So Colby asked the state Agriculture Agency, and its federal counterparts, if they knew what was going on.
“'We have no information about that pit,’” Colby says he was told at the time.
“And we all know what was going on last year at this time… This was ground zero of Vermont’s water quality problem. This was going on, and no regulatory agency had any idea about it.”
Colby testified before the Senate Natural Committee Wednesday.
And he brought along video his team took last summer of the gigantic pit.
"Forbidden Grazers" a video by Colby’s organization, Regeneration Vermont, which includes footage of the pit filmed in the summer 2017
He also provided a ream of documents he obtained under the state’s public records law that show the state’s recent interactions with Pleasant Valley Farms of Franklin County.
VTDigger reported Tuesday on the documents Colby obtained.
At the Statehouse, Colby described the lengthy process behind obtaining the paper trail:
“It took months and months," said Colby. "Beginning back in October, I first filed my FOIA request and public records request. And it wasn’t until the end of February that we finally got the documents that finally showed what was going on."
Colby says, "what was going on, is that the regulators are asleep at the wheel.”
The farm operation in question is owned by Amanda and Mark St. Pierre.
The couple runs a half-dozen farms in Franklin County, not including their latest acquisition, the Lumbra Farm on Skunk Hollow Road in Berkshire where this summer’s expansion took place.
The Agriculture Agency has now told the St. Pierre’s that they need a large farm permit for that new farm.
Laura DiPietro, director of water quality at the agency, says the state has been on the case since it first heard from Colby last fall.
“It’s fair to say the agency has not stopped since we got this complaint," says DiPietro. "Every single month, there has been significant correspondence, in my opinion, back and forth, on this matter to try and gather the information we need to make understandable decisions about what the next steps need to be.”
It’s actually the size of the expanded barn, not the manure pit, that the state cites when it told the St. Pierre’s they needed to comply with large farm regulations.
A letter sent by the state in February says they may face enforcement action for failing to file a large farm permit application for the new farm.
The St. Pierre’s have recently challenged in environmental court the state’s ruling that a large farm permit is required.
Amanda St. Pierre says they expanded the farm facilities last summer after they bought the Lumbra Farm. The barn is now being used as a maternity facility to house cows that have recently given birth.
“There is no potential for runoff from that farm because everything is going to go into this lined manure pit, which is the best we can [do] for water quality,” she said.
St. Pierre says Colby’s organization, Regeneration Vermont, wants to end animal agriculture in Vermont and is using their farm as part of its publicity campaign.
“If this group has a problem with the Ag Agency, that’s a separate issue,” she said. “But they obviously have a problem with dairy farming, and that’s the real platform of which they’re using. Speaking for the family, we followed everything the way we felt we should have, following the statues of what are in place.”
Not so, said Colby.
He said his target is not dairy farming – but farm pollution, which he says comes most often from confined animal operations like the St. Pierre’s farms.
He says part of the answer is allowing animals to graze on pasture, instead of living in confinement. More aggressive enforcement from the state is also needed, he said.
“If they [the Agency of Agriculture] were really acting in the best interests of all Vermonters, and not just these 30 mega-farms, they would have been on site and shut this facility down immediately,” he said.
Colby’s testimony was well received by Sen. Christopher Bray, the Addison County Democrat who chairs the Natural Resources Committee.
Bray says he supports the concept of citizen suits, which would allow people like Colby to bring enforcement actions on their own in court.
“This is a society of law and order, let’s follow the law. For everyone who follows the law already, a citizen suit is actually just good news. That means everyone else will follow the law,” Bray said.