By Michael Colby

Not so long ago, summers at Vermont’s Lake Carmi didn’t mean fighting for water quality. And it was only about 100 years ago that Lake Carmi was called Silver Lake, a reflection of its purity at the time. But those days are over – for now.

This summer, like so many recent summers, much of Lake Carmi was a fluorescent blue-green from the cyanobacteria lapping at its shores. The cause is no secret: 85% of this phosphorus-ignited toxic-algae is caused by the area’s mega-dairies – the same dairies that supply Ben & Jerry’s.

Lake Carmi sits in the middle of what is considered “ground zero” for Vermont’s dairy pollution crisis – Franklin County. It’s the state’s top-producing dairy county, home to more than 36,000 cows, almost all of them warehoused in confinement. They are forbidden grazers, never putting a hoof to pasture in their shortened, five-year lives of staggering milk production before an inglorious exit to the meat supply.

My colleagues and I spent much of the summer and fall in the Lake Carmi region, studying the culture and agriculture, gathering evidence and putting our eyes on the problem. We met with local residents who shared their stories of the region’s decline, giving us tours of the area and showing us every wetland, brook, and river that shared in the damage from the dairies that had grown and consolidated beyond recognition.

We also participated in the local meetings that featured one state official after another – heads of agriculture, natural resources, and environmental conservation. And we shared in the frustration that filled the rooms as these officials came with little to offer other than the same old empty rhetoric and slogans (“all-in!”). Even as their own data points to confinement-farm runoff as the primary culprit, the agendas were dominated by talk of roads, ditching and septic systems, which, taken together, account for less than 10% of Lake Carmi’s toxic problem.

Frustration boiled over at a September meeting when the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Emily Boedecker, took the state’s art of stalling and dairy denial to new heights – or lows, more like it. Addressing a packed room of concerned citizens, the very people who live next to the closed beaches and the fear and stench that comes with it, Boedecker came with an announcement from the state: They would be offering a $9,000 grant for road ditching and an AmeriCorps volunteer to write-up the history of the area.

But the people in the room – us included — demanded action on the real causes: Big Dairy. And we let Boedecker know that the state’s continued avoidance of this real cause was as obvious as it was wrong.

Her response? Boedecker brought two armed guards to the next meeting. To her credit, she was honest about why she brought them: “To enforce the agenda.” And to Boedecker, that meant keeping Big Dairy off the agenda and silencing the public.

Not surprisingly, this armed-guard strategy backfired, as the media and the community cried foul. Even Big Dairy’s greatest media apologist in Vermont, the St. Alban’s Messenger, chimed in with an editorial entitled,” “State overshot with its armed escorts in Franklin.”

Taste this from the Messenger’s editorial: “The issue is water quality itself, and the state’s role in working to improve what is before us. Those who minimize it, and those who think this is another iteration of an age-old issue, are wrong. Not only is the problem worse, but the political nature of the opposition has evolved and will not be silenced. Nor should they be…Those advocating in Lake Carmi’s defense are not only more vocal than those in the past, but far more sophisticated in their defense, and far more articulate.”

This is huge. It shows that there are cracks in the wall of silence that has been the norm when it comes to discussing the “sacred cow” that is Big Dairy in Vermont. We are making headway, breaking through the silence, and building a statewide movement that is all about addressing the real problem – too many confined cows raised with toxic inputs (GMO corn, glyphosate, atrazine, formaldehyde, etc.).

We’ve been doing the painstaking work of immersing ourselves into both the data and the culture that has given rise to the problem. And we’ve been telling these stories in a flurry of reports, essays and commentaries – as well as at public meeting after public meeting.

To the state’s attempts at intimidating us with armed guards to enforce another dead-end agenda, we replied: The pen is mightier than the sword. And we keep on speaking up and publishing the real – and tragic – story of Big Dairy in Vermont and its trashing of our natural resources.

Take a look, for example, at our most recent published report, “A Failure to Regulate, Big Dairy and Water Pollution in Vermont”. As you see, it’s more than a documentation of the problems, but a call for the necessary (and obvious) solution: a transition to regenerative organic agriculture that, first and foremost, requires that, unlike the confinement dairies, cows have access to grass and sun – daily.

These have been interesting times in Vermont. But the shift is underway, as the devastating story of Big Dairy is told and the necessary alternatives are highlighted.

We can, indeed, fix this. Regeneration now.