Over the project's duration, the Center team and Extension colleagues: Visited 189 farms Supported 109 conservation plans Documented 85 farms with at least one practice to the standards of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) standards and referred 75+ farms into federal NRCS programs. This is significant because NRCS is not only a partner in this project, but also such an important source of support and guidance for farmers' on-farm practices. Developed 31 case studies to share both on-farm impacts and the context of different farming situations across the watershed.

Since 2015, the Center for Sustainable Agriculture has been part of a regional effort to improve an entire watershed's water quality by working directly with farmers.

The Long Island Sound Watershed Regional Conservation Partnership Program (LISW-RCPP) "focuses on private working lands to manage soil nutrient loss, protect non-industrial forest habitat, biodiversity, and drinking water sources, and stem erosion and thus improve resiliency on working lands through riparian restoration."

What does this mean?  For the Center, it was an opportunity to work with farmers to meet their own goals for production and economic viability with healthy soil and clean water in mind - and in a part of Vermont that often doesn't get as much attention as the Lake Champlain region. Our focus was on the farms within the Connecticut River watershed, as these lands and waters ultimately end up in the Long Island Sound.

What we’ve learned from years of work with farmers is that relationships of any kind take trust, which is only built over time.  Benefits from well-managed farming systems are not the result of a single practice or applying a practice for a short period of time. An essential piece of this project has been the ability to take the time needed to build relationships, test and refine practices on the ground, and set up farmers and the land they steward for longer-term success.

That relationship orientation was present through all of this project, from the formation of the team that ultimately was awarded the grant, right down to the individual participating farms.

Project Director Jenn Colby says,  "What we've learned is that what we get  the initial call for is not necessarily what we end up working with them on.  What starts as a question about nutrient deficiency in corn may lead to new crops, questions of profitability, or even farm transfer. Maintaining these relationships is what allows us to solve deeper problems, together."

And in a world where we're still learning how to address enormous societal challenges like water quality (just one of many "wicked problems" that farmers find themselves right at the heart of), this approach can really matter.

"On the farm, there's generally no shortage of ways to do better, and farmers really want to," Jenn says.

And projects like this one, with dedicated time and resources to build relationships, are part of that solution.

This story originally appeared in the February 2021 Fresh from the Field email newsletter.


Cheryl Herrick