Thibault Dairy Farm relies on grants to keep up with water quality standards

Earlier this spring, Robert and Normand Thibault were awarded a $40,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to make improvements on their dairy farm.

The dairy improvement grant, awarded by the Vermont Farm Forest Viability Program, is fully funded by the Ehrmann Commonwealth Dairy in Brattleboro, which donates a portion of its profits to Vermont dairies, according to program director Ela Chapin.

With the grant and other state and federal funds, the Thibaults are building a 1.3 million-gallon manure and wastewater storage tank, a wastewater pump and a barnyard on the Malletts Bay Rd. property. Norm Thibault estimates the total project cost to be around $700,000 upon completion, with supplementary funds coming from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as his own pocket.

These new fixtures will help the Thibaults comply with recent changes to agricultural laws aimed at improving water quality of the Lake Champlain basin.

“This will make our job a little more efficient and also clean up the lake at the same time,” said Alex Thibault, who works on the farm with his father, Norm, and grandfather, Robert. “That’s the main reason: Keep the runoff out of the streams and out of the ground.”

Act 64, the Vermont Clean Water Act, was passed into law in fall 2016 and established required agricultural practices for farms to reduce the amount of nutrient leaching into the lake basin. The RAPs created new standards for wastewater and manure storage, vegetated buffer zones and other preventative measures to help improve water quality in the lake.

For the Thibaults, these requirements did not come as a surprise.

“We slowly transitioned into it,” Norm said. “We try to work around things, trying out different ways of no-till planting, cover cropping, learning from it and learning from your mistakes.”

The Thibaults also use stream buffers, and with their new storage tank, they’ll be able to keep manure and wastewater out of the fields to prevent nutrient leaching into the groundwater. They also say the tank will make cleaning the barn much easier and hopefully increase efficiency.

During the construction of the new infrastructure, however, life on the Thibault Dairy Farm doesn’t stop.

“It’s challenging because you still gotta farm,” Norm said. “I still got my hay to bring in, cows to milk.”

Stagnant milk prices are also a challenge for the Thibaults and other dairy farms in the state and make grant programs like the VHCB invaluable to farmers.

“Many farms have been putting off some fairly basic investments in their farm businesses because of the ongoing persistent low milk prices over the last five years,” Chapin said.

The project also included the installation of this machine which will pump manure into the tank, making the process more efficient and easier come winter. (Photo: Amanda Brooks/Colchester Sun)

She added many farms have to use matching grant programs and find other funds to make these improvements and comply with RAPs.

“It’s a losing battle,” Norm Thibault said. “It’s costing me more to produce than what I’m getting out of it. To everybody, every farm.”

Town officials understand the pressures on these farms and are working to ease them through grants and other programs.

When the town adopted a stormwater utility last spring that charges fees based on the amount of impervious land on a property, town officials agreed to cap fees on non-commercial land over an acre, according to Karen Adams, technical services manager. She said this often helps keep fees down for agricultural businesses.

“We sort of carved out that middle ground to recognize that they have a larger impact on water quality than the average single family home but not the same resources or impact that commercial entities have,” Adams said.

She also noted the town recognizes the struggles small farms are encountering with low milk prices and water quality standards, and said the town wants to help.

“We are looking at ways to specifically target folks who are under those water quality requirements and reward them for what they’re obligated to do under that program with the state,” Adams said. “We’re trying to develop a credit opportunity for those folks as well.”

Kathi Walker O’Reilly, Colchester’s director of economic development, said the town has reached out to local farms to help them find funding and comply with water quality standards.

“We want to support the agricultural community that’s here,” O’Reilly said. “We are trying to do whatever we can to help them, because they are an integral part of our community.”

Norm said there’s a lot of work still to be done on the farm and most likely still more money coming out of his pocket.

“It’s going to be a learning curve,” he said.