By Will Allen & Michael Colby

Vermont’s large-farm dairy industry is under increasing scrutiny for a variety of economic, ecological, and humanitarian transgressions. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, was recently the subject of a New York Times exclusive that reported on the existence of the pesticide glyphosate in 10 of 11 samples of its ice cream.

But contamination from the mega-dairies that supply Vermont’s big brands, like Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Cheese, is nothing new to Vermonters, especially when it comes to the contamination of our waterways. For decades, these iconic brands have garnered enormous profits – each hovering around the $1 billion-a-year level – while pushing a kind of confinement, non-grazing dairy production, resulting in a toxic farm runoff that is literally choking our lakes and streams. Even the beloved Lake Champlain is one of more than 100 other bodies of water in Vermont that are classified as “impaired.” And, in many cases, “impaired” means filled with the green slime that is cyanobacteria, smelling so badly that homes and summer camps have become uninhabitable, and beaches are posted with signs that warn, “no swimming.”

Ground zero for Vermont’s dairy pollution is the tragically-polluted Lake Carmi, in Franklin County. Its beaches have been closed for weeks due to cyanobacteria outbreaks, as the water is green and the smells hang over a once-thriving area, now a mere ghost town. Think: Love Canal. And there’s no secret about the cause of the pea-soup like water lapping up on its barren shores: Big Dairy and its 36,000 confined cows in Franklin County alone – the primary dairy source for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

According to an EPA report (“Risk Management Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, 2004), the waste stream created by 2,500 confined cows is equivalent to that of 411,000 people. So Franklin County’s 36,000 cows are creating a waste stream equivalent to that of nearly 6 million people. And none of it is treated and all of it is spread across our land – thickly and quickly, before the giant manure pits spill over.

The results are obvious: toxic water, closed beaches, dead wildlife, and severe economic and cultural abandonment. But even while data from Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources declares that 85% of the Lake Carmi’s water pollution problems are the result of “agriculture” (read: confinement dairy), state politicians and regulators continue to be mere enablers to a dairy system that is completely out of balance with any sense of environmental, animal welfare, or economic justice.

Every year more state and federal money gets spent on trying to reverse the decline of our public waters in Vermont. Yet, every year the problem gets worse, because they’re not addressing the problem, and not turning off the flowing spigot that is big dairy’s manure, pesticide and antibiotic pollution. And it seems destined to continue until citizens of all stripes — consumers, property owners, taxpayers, farmers, and naturalists – rise up and force the state and the corporations to shut off the major sources of water pollution that are devastating our lakes and rivers.

Vermont’s water quality issues will not be solved until state regulators and legislators take action to curtail and transition out of confined dairy. There must be a plan to stop — not just regulate and attempt to dilute — dairy pollution. At some point, we are going to have to get beyond the “all in” rhetoric of the dairy industry and its complicit regulators, whereby they attempt to convince us that even though they’re causing more than half the problem, taxpayers should pay for all of the cleanup.

Consider these water-quality facts and warnings:

  • As much as 85% of Vermont’s water woes – depending on location — are caused by dairy farm runoff.
  • Since Vermont’s near-complete adoption of GMO corn (96% of the 92,000 acres grown), pesticide use has risen 39% and nitrogen fertilizer use is up 17%, sending the excess toxins and nutrients to our waterways.
  • Pesticide residues and nitrates are routinely detected in our water supplies, almost 80% of which, according to the Agency of Agriculture, comes from dairy farm applications. Water sampling done by the Agency has shown 9% of all samples contain pesticide residues and 11% show nitrate contamination.
  • Persistent and elevated levels of endocrine-disrupting pesticides like atrazine in Lake Champlain have led to the feminization of male smallmouth bass, where more than 60% of them in Missisquoi Bay are bearing eggs.
  • The rise in farm-nutrient pollution is leading to an explosion of cyanobacteria growth in our waterways, resulting in closed beaches, plummeting waterfront housing values in affected areas, and health problems for people, pets and wildlife.
  • In the current summer (2017), the Vermont Department of Health has already issued dozens of warnings as either low-alert or high-alert for cyanotoxin contamination of Vermont’s waterways. These alerts can mean that beaches are closed and water access and contact is considered health threatening.
  • The Vermont Department of Health has recently launched its “Cyanobacteria Tracker” website, requesting that water enthusiasts of all types check it before visiting the state’s waterways. Cyanobacteria now pollutes more than 35 square miles of the Lake Champlain shoreline.
  • Among the most egregious water violators are Vermont’s two dairy co-ops, St. Albans (Ben & Jerry’s) and Agri-Mark (Cabot). The spills at Cabot’s hometown facility have included illegal discharges that have killed fish, sterilized miles of river, and polluted the river with sewage.

Ironically, for literally decades, Vermont legislators have passed bills and measures requiring the agencies to regulate dairy pollution, agricultural runoff, pesticide and fertilizer abuse, and excess use of antibiotics, the most recent effort being Act 64. With the passage of each, Vermonters celebrated and then relaxed, thinking that the regulators would enforce and support the enacted regulations. That expectation has been wrong, as state regulators consistently refuse to regulate dairy, no matter how many laws are passed.

As a result of this refusal to regulate in Vermont, a state still branded as bucolic, 15 lakes and 86 rivers and streams were deemed as impaired in 2016 by the US EPA. None of Lake Champlain’s 174,175 Vermont acres fully support all designated uses due to the combined effects of mercury contamination, PFOA pollution, nutrient accumulation (nitrogen and phosphorus), and non-native species. To punctuate how widespread the pollution is, according to the EPA, more than 138,900 acres (80%) of the Vermont portion of Lake Champlain were not even swimmable during the summers of 2015 and 2016.

But we can fix it. Vermont is overdue for a transformation in the way we work the land. This kind of change has been a constant in Vermont’s agricultural history. The big problems being caused by large-farm dairies – everything from water pollution to farmworker exploitation to animal abuse – can be solved with some big solutions.

The reality is that the necessary agricultural revolution won’t begin with our governors, regulators, or legislators. The record shows that they’ve only enabled Big Dairy for decades. The people are going to have to lead on this one.

And we have a plan. It’s as bold as it’s required to be given the importance of Vermont’s dairy industry to our heritage, our values, our working landscape, jobs, tourism, and our brand identity.

Regeneration Vermont is calling for a statewide transition to regenerative and organic dairy production. This plan was endorsed by more than two-dozen of Vermont’s agricultural, environmental and food economy leaders, including the state’s former secretary of agriculture.

This transition must go hand in hand with market demand, so that farmers can receive a higher – and more stable – price. Again, more than 200 of Vermont’s dairy farms have already made this transition, reaping the economic benefits and putting into place the agricultural practices that protect water quality and the environment, keep cows on pasture, build healthy soils to sequester carbon, reject GMOs and toxic pesticides, and honor Vermont’s values and brand identity.

We can do this.

Read the full NEW report A Failure To Regulate: Big Dairy & Water Pollution in Vermont.