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Placing Value on Vermont Farms’ Hidden Assets

Agriculture and Conservation are Not 'Either/Or'

Ernesto Mendez shows a map of a participating farm whose conservation areas are identified.
Ernesto Mendez applies the principles of agroecology to his work of with 30 Vermont farmers. His research helps farmers realize valuable land resources they may have overlooked.

“Vermont’s working landscape” – say that phrase to most people, and they’ll describe the patchwork of grazed, mowed, planted and built landscapes. What’s left over in their minds is the wild, natural forest. Oh sure, there’s a little woodland tended for sugarbush, woodlot or lumber, but, by and large (and in Vermont it’s very large – 70 percent of Vermont is forested) the forest is viewed as the untended and unused portion of what once was farmland.

That’s not how Ernesto Mendez sees it.

When he came to UVM in 2006, the agroecologist brought expertise in the science of growing a crop whose success depends on the forested shade – coffee. And he brought an attitude that the forest’s ecological and cultural value to farmers can be described and maybe even quantified.

“I’m really interested in the conservation value of agriculture in a way that helps not harms farmers,” Mendez says. “Agriculture and conservation have been presented as at odds for a long time – as working the landscape for products versus preserving the landscape for conservation. Agriculture and conservation are not ‘either/or.’”

His research stresses conserving on-farm ecosystems and protecting the environment, while at the same time enhancing farms’ functions and the livelihoods of farmers.

In 2006, a $10,000 USDA Hatch grant allowed Mendez to hatch his Vermont research, first assessing the Vermont agricultural landscape through existing maps, then working with farmers to expand that information. Since then, Mendez convinced the USDA of the value and potential of this one-on-one work with Vermont farmers to tease out what Mendez calls the “multifunctionality” of farmland. Current grants through 2011 total $110,000.


Farmland Has Unexpected Value

“I would say the core of this project is multifunction – the functions of a farm other than those that generate products – the ecological functions. These include plant diversity, water quality, wildlife and climate regulation – that last one is really important in Vermont,” he says. More on that later.

Mendez, Sarah Lovell of the University of Illinois and colleagues found 30 willing participants among small and mid-sized Champlain Basin farmers – half vegetable growers and half dairy producers. They rolled out detailed aerial photos and GIS maps onto their kitchen tables and talked about each building, field and forest as they traced their fingers along hedgerows and fence lines.

“We asked, ‘what do you do in each of your parcels,’” he says. And with the answers, they penciled in hunting, snowmobile and hiking trails, wild nut trees, places with family or historical value and the like. They walked the land, collected demographic information and interviewed farmers.

“We mapped the functions, got an idea of farmers’ attitudes and documented practices that may improve water quality, add to biodiversity and conserve tree species. We want to know what species farms are conserving and how those compare to the species mix in nature.”

Mendez and his team also asked farmers how they felt about conservation and what conservation programs they participate in. Initial results indicate that farmers don’t always know the programs they’ve signed on for – Next they will review conservation programs available and assess how to improve them so they compensate or support farmers for the ecosystem services they provide.

While they’re still at the inventory stage, ultimately these researchers want to show how Vermont farms support environmental conservation and then to evaluate how federal conservation programs, land trusts and private easements enhance (or not) farmers’ conservation efforts. Their research seeks to show how working farms are providing environmental protection and how existing programs could further support farmers to maintain or enhance this impact. This could be useful to any farmers interested in conservation grants, tax-incentives and payments.

“We seek to identify key landscape features and habitats that serve multiple conservation functions, so that some day these functions might become policy priorities reflected in conservation programs that support or compensate farmers. We will also be able to explore opportunities to combine on-farm conservation with economic benefits or other incentives for farmers, including the emerging markets for ecosystem services,” his grant proposal states.


Europeans Ahead On This

 “Europeans have long valued the cultural and ecological qualities of land, even to the point of subsidizing them,” Mendez says. “I think that in the future, people here will look at the functions of forests as part of farm landscapes.” And perhaps these qualities will become part of a farm’s net worth.

With the increasing awareness and preoccupation with climate change, the phrase “carbon sequestration” has come to the forefront of environmental management needs in rural landscapes, Mendez wrote in the original grant proposal. He explains, “initially, people focused on forests because that’s where carbon is sequestered, and when forests burn, that’s a major source of carbon emissions. But now people realize that agriculture comprises a huge land mass globally, and it is a source of high carbon emissions from livestock, fertilizer and fossil fuels. So worldwide interest in how we can turn agriculture from a greenhouse-gas emitting industry to one that mitigates climate change.”

Additionally, this project inventoried trees on 12 farms with an eye to future projects on calculating carbon sequestration. But Mendez is thinking way ahead of this project and perhaps ahead of current thought on climate change.

“That’s where policy comes in. At the world level, many propose that governments should contribute money for climate mitigation. That’s not going to be easy or simple,” but even if that doesn’t come to pass, “we believe it is important to work with farmers that are interested in doing conservation on their farms and to start a dialogue with others that may not be so interested.”

“Through scientific understanding we can help procure sustainable food systems where people can make a meaningful living while conserving the environment,” one of Mendez’s project posters proposes.

Through UVM's Center for Rural Studies, Mendez recently submitted a proposal to UVM’s “food systems mini-grant” to “start taking what we found on the 30 Vermont farms and add other organizations that serve these farmers." Decisions on these grants will be announced in February.


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