Organic Dairy Farmer Weighs Vernon Gas Plant Proposal

Feb 29, 2016

The southern Vermont community of Vernon will hold a non-binding Town Meeting Day vote on a proposed natural gas power plant, and an organic dairy farm is the main location under consideration.

The Miller family has farmed in Vernon for a century, and they are now weighing a decision to sell about 20 acres for the controversial energy project.

But being a neighbor to an electric power plant is nothing new to Pete Miller.

The now-idle Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is right across the railroad tracks, and the plant's cooling towers rise above Miller's fields. So Miller's heard plenty of heated debate through the years over Vermont's role in supporting energy production.

But he says that's no reason to back away from the issue.

"Farmers have been called on to carry the share of feeding the world," Miller says. "In war time they produced extra and worked harder. And so throughout history a lot of farmers have kind of been leaned on by society for carrying a load."

Developers say Vernon is the perfect location for a proposed $750 million natural gas power plant.

The Millers' field runs right along the Velco switchyard, where developers say a natural gas power plant could be built.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

With Vermont Yankee shut down, there's capacity in the massive electric switchyard outside the nuclear plant. And a proposed natural gas pipeline will run within seven miles of Vernon, carrying fracked gas from Pennsylvania into New England.

So a nonbinding vote is being held on Town Meeting Day, primarily to let developers know if there's support for the project.

Miller says he's also waiting to see how the town feels about the plan.

"Farmers have been called on to carry the share of feeding the world. In war time they produced extra and worked harder. And so throughout history a lot of farmers have kind of been leaned on by society for carrying a load." - Pete Miller, Vernon farmer

"We're anxious to see where the vote comes in."  he says. "We happen to be an energy hub town and we have to decide whether we want to continue with that or not."

Miller and his brother Art run the farm, and they grow corn and alfalfa in their field alongside the Velco switchyard, which is used to send electricity into the New England grid.

Developers want to build the natural gas plant on his family's land.

Miller milks the roughly 170 cows on the farm most mornings, and his 79-year-old father often helps out.

The Miller Farm is an organic dairy with about 170 milking cows. The gas plant would just take up a sliver of the more than 600 acres the family owns and leases.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

He says the organic dairy business is pretty good, and he wasn't out shopping his property.

The gas plant would just take up a sliver of the more than 600 acres the family owns and leases. And regardless of what happens with the vote or the project, Miller will continue working the rich river-bottom land that's sustained his family for 100 years.

"There was no genius on our part to be in the place where we are, to have this land," he says. "We just inherited it from those who went before us and we want to honor them in how we use it."

The Miller Farm in Vernon. Vernon's energy history goes back to 1909, when a 32-megawatt hydro electric project was built on the Connecticut River.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Vernon's energy history goes back to 1909, when a 32-megawatt hydro electric project was built on the Connecticut River.

And for 40 years Yankee pumped its electricity into the grid.

Miller's been approached by solar developers, but their plans include gobbling up much more agricultural land and producing just a fraction of the 600-or-so megawatts the gas plant is expected to generate.

"There was no genius on our part to be in the place where we are, to have this land. We just inherited it from those who went before us and we want to honor them in how we use it." - Pete Miller

The farmer says the vote Tuesday will show whether Vernon wants to continue to play a role in the state's energy future.

"And so we feel like we as a state need to carry our burden and not just keep the pressure on somebody else either damming up the rivers or developing all these other energy sources," Miller says.

Miller says there's no deal on the table for the gas plant; developers talked, and he and his brother listened.

Even with a positive vote Tuesday, there are still a lot of pieces that need to fall into place before the electric plant is built.

The natural gas pipeline needs federal approval, the plant requires a raft of state and federal permits and it's still not clear who's going to come up with the $750 million to build the plant.

There's a pile of wood ash in the field near the switchyard. And Miller says he plans on planting corn there in the spring, just like he and his family have for 100 years.