Crisis in Agriculture in Vermont
A Special Report
From Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc.

March 20, 2002

Agriculture has been a mainstay of Vermont's economy and culture for centuries. The state of Vermont does and should take an active role in supporting agriculture. However, in recent years, support for agriculture has been twisted by our state government so that it no longer means what it once did -- support for family farms and sustainable way of life. Instead, support for agriculture has come to mean support for practices that generate the most dollars in the shortest time with the least concern about their impact on other Vermonters , present and future.

Part I
The Breaking Point

“I do not appreciate your comments that suggest that my concern is based upon unfounded fear and stress. The only stress that I find hard to tolerate is the kind that is generated when I approach the people vested with the power to protect us and they act as if I am making the whole situation into something worse than it actually is.”
—Windham County mother of 5 to VT Department of Agriculture, Food, and Markets

In September, 1999, Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves replied to Ashley Greene*, an Addison County Vermont mother of two who had been calling and writing to Vermont’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets (DAFM) since 1992 expressing concerns for the health of her children due to their exposure to pesticides at a nearby orchard: “Your situation is unique, due to the proximity of your home to the orchard, and the fact that your property is surrounded by the orchard,” Graves wrote.

In July, 1999, Judy Ferraro, a Windham County mother of five children who had been complaining to DAFM since 1996 about pesticide exposure from her orchard neighbor wrote to Governor Howard Dean, “Our gravest concern is that we are being exposed to these toxic chemicals in the air we breath; inhalation of pesticides is the most dangerous kind of exposure, and it is the most difficult to monitor. Many days I have called to my children to come indoors and shut the windows to protect ourselves. We have experienced burning eyes and lips when standing by our front door. Our property is surrounded on three sides by orchards…Last year, after many phone calls and pleas for assistance, the head of the Agriculture Dept. came to our place to check things out first hand. He was clearly disturbed by what he saw.”

Meanwhile, at the same time in Orwell, Vermont, George Trickett sought information from DAFM about pesticides used at the orchard next to his home. Unaware of a previous neighbor's allegations in 1992 that the orchard’s pesticides had poisoned and killed the trout he was trying to raise, Trickett had been complaining since 1995 to DAFM about numerous issues including the pesticide mixing area located within 100 feet of his well, with runoff water flowing into a ditch that flows into Lake Champlain. In 1995, DAFM recommended that the orchard owner “find a more suitable place for mixing and loading in the future due to drainage patterns in the area.” DAFM’s field agent wrote in his report: “The orchard owner “told me that it is in his next objective to transfer this area farther from the ditch and secure this area from any runoff.”” In 1996, DAFM was called again and “found no violations but the recommendation to move the mix and load area was again made.”

In all three cases, after repeated visits from DAFM field agents responding to complaints, pesticide residues were found on the neighbor’s properties -- in a pond, a stream, a lawn and the family vegetable garden.

Yet, despite years of hearing credible and frequent complaints from these Vermonters, DAFM failed to develop a strategy to address the common, not at all “unique”, problem of exposure to pesticides from Vermont agricultural operations.

Pesticides and health
After years of frustration dealing with DAFM, Ashley Greene, who has a background in horticulture, wrote to Governor Dean in January, 2001: “The grower in this case is using some chemicals that are recognized carcinogens. Increasingly, research is showing links between chemical exposure and disease, and children are most vulnerable to the effects of chemicals. I am very concerned with the chemical exposure my two children are getting. Recently I learned of a study in the Netherlands that has documented mild cognitive dysfunction in people exposed to pesticides, including problems with numbers, letters, and speech. Both my children are now receiving special aid at school for speech difficulties. Is there a correlation? I don’t know. But it seems that our current agricultural standards and Department of Agriculture permit land use practices that are potentially hazardous.”

Downstate, Judy Ferraro, who has a background in science, printed a 1999 article from CNN, “Study urged of pesticide, youth violence link.” The article quotes University of California researcher Robert Hatherill, “A rapidly expanding body of research shows that heavy metals such as lead and pesticides decrease mental ability and increase aggressiveness.”** Specifically, the article mentions azinphos methyl, the pesticide most widely used at her neighboring orchard. It continued, “Pesticides can damage the brain and nervous system. Young children are especially susceptible.” Judy’s youngest son was conceived and born at the orchard property in 1998, and has had aggressive and violent behavioral problems since birth.

Adding to the stress of Judy’s situation was the infuriating state government. She wrote to the Federal EPA in 1999, “So far the state Dept. of Agriculture has been slow and ineffective at dealing with our concerns. The bureaucracy I have been dealing with has got me to the breaking point.”

George Trickett wrote to Governor Dean in 1997, “I enclose a letter from my physician which clearly states the seriousness of my health situation. We have appealed to many state agencies, but the response has been perfunctory.”

The “Right to Farm” -- [Update: Read "Right to Farm" Testimony, Jan. 23, 2004]
In 2000, George Trickett, who had purchased his 1835 brick farmhouse in 1992, filed a lawsuit against the orchard. What was once just an orchard had changed use in 1994 to become a large packing operation with trucks left running for hours, diesel emissions, night-time operations, sanitation and migrant worker housing issues, noise and more. The Addison County Superior Court Judge found that the orchard was a nuisance, but it was there before the Tricketts purchased their home. That decision is now under appeal before Vermont’s Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on March 13, 2002.

The State of Vermont filed an Amicus Curiae brief with the court in October, 2001 in defense of the orchard’s “right to farm," stating that the orchard is “in compliance with Vermont’s water quality standards” and does not have “a substantial adverse effect on the public health and safety.” The State’s filing came just 3 weeks after DAFM served a “Notice of Violation” against the orchard for contaminating surface water which flows into Lake Champlain with 10.6 ppb of the pesticide Simazine in June 2001.

Simazine is in the Triazine family which also includes Atrazine. The French have issued a ban on Triazines effective Sept. 2002 "due to threats they pose to human health and their "generalized presence" in water supplies." The French government has announced that “Pesticide use has become a major public issue.” In England, Simazine is on the “UK Red List” – “dangerous to the aquatic environment”-- and has a degradation half-life of up to 200 days in water and can persist in soil up to 2 years after application. Pesticide mixing areas have been shown to be significant sources of pollution into waterways.***

In establishing the facts of the violation, DAFM repeated the history of the department’s advice to move the pesticide mixing area in 1995 and again in 1996, noting that at the time of the violation in June 2001 “the mixing and loading area remained unchanged from the previous investigations.” The violation charged: “The orchard worker “mixed pesticides that resulted in either the pesticide product, dilution or rinsate entering an unnamed stream, thus violating 6 VSA Section 1111(a)(6).””

The orchard violated “Accepted Agriculture Practices” (AAPs) which are “a group of farmland management activities intended to conserve and protect natural resources.” AAPs are about water protection, not about protecting public health from exposure to pesticides. For 6 years, DAFM was aware of the potential for toxic releases into state waters in Orwell, in violation of AAPs which restrict the discharge of pesticides into surface waters. DAFM never enforced their own recommendation to move the pesticide mixing area. In 1998, Commissioner Graves wrote to George Trickett, “My staff has thoroughly reviewed your complaints regarding possible pesticide regulation violation and has not found a single violation.”

The state of Vermont could have stayed silent in the Vermont Supreme Court case due to the confirmed release of pesticides from the orchard in violation of Acceptable Agriculture Practices. Participation in this case before the Vermont Supreme Court shows where Vermont’s agriculture policy lies: in defense of polluters, without regard for human health.

In all three cases, state officials cite the concept of “pre-existence”. Commissioner Leon Graves wrote to Ashley Greene, “these problems become more common as more and more residential properties are created within agricultural production areas.” In a March 1, 2002 Addison Eagle article, State Senator Tom Bahre said about the Trickett case, “The orchard was there, doing business, and ought to be allowed to do so. I have a hard time with new people on the block coming along and impacting a farm that was clearly there when they purchased the property.”

"Pre-existence" is a tactic used to lay blame on the shoulders of the "ignorant newcomers.” A "you-should-have-known" attitude is a shield DAFM uses to justify their lack of action.

In Greene’s case, the orchard maintenance methods intensified over time, starting with hand-wand spraying, evolving to the use of a mist rig sprayer that shoots pesticides 60', drifting well onto her property even on calm days, often coating her car and home with pesticide residue. Federal Worker Protection Safety guidelines require zero re-entry to sprayed areas for a specified period of time, except using special protective gear, depending on the chemical used (96 hours for commonly used Captan), but the children have no such protection and have been exposed to neurotoxins and recognized carcinogens their entire lives. Commissioner Graves is fully aware that pesticides are often sprayed minutes before the children are dropped off by the school bus and walk down through sprayed trees, the only access to their home. The farmer himself created this situation by building the house within an operating orchard and then subdividing it for sale.

In George Trickett’s case, the orchard operation grew, pesticide use increased to more than 30 chemicals in 2001, and the use changed from agricultural to a commercial/industrial apple-packing house, cold storage facility and maintenance garage involving 20 refrigerator trailers, 4 truck cabs and 4 forklifts, many of which are left idling for hours and hours, day and night. The Trickett’s farmhouse was once owned by the orchard owner, but he chose to sell it. Despite all the complaints, Commissioner Graves did not visit the Orwell operation until November, 2001.

Judy Ferraro had concerns about the use of pesticides in the orchard before she purchased her property in Rockingham. She learned what she could and spoke with DAFM to find out if it was safe to live there. DAFM placated her fears about the potential hazards, assuring her it was safe. “The only thing I was told was to be happy that my property was not adjacent to a corn field or golf course since these places have to deal with contamination of ground/drinking water!” she wrote in her notes after another exasperating conversation with DAFM.

As Vermont’s population grows and continually expands into agricultural areas, farmers are going to need to adapt by decreasing the use of harmful chemical compounds. Not doing so will eventually lead to successful lawsuits that will really force them out of business. The fault here actually lies with DAFM for not addressing the problem and for not helping farmers make the transition to less chemically intensive agriculture. Instead, they have blamed the victim and are contributing to the disintegration of Vermont’s rural economy.

Part II
Family Farms or Food Product Factories

“He is a business man with big money. He is not a farmer. He doesn’t care about the people or the environment. He doesn’t care that the air stinks or that there are flies everywhere. He doesn’t care that his trucks ruin the roads and make it unsafe for your children to ride their bikes. He doesn’t care that he destroys your way of life, and unfortunately the state of Vermont doesn’t care either.”
–John Tremblay, native Vermonter, neighbor of egg factory who moved his family to New Hampshire

The DAFM cannot use the “pre-existence” tactic to justify their actions in the agricultural conflict occurring in Highgate, Vermont. Multi-national Canadian multi-millionaire Lucien Breton and his egg factory were invited into the dairy farming community by DAFM in 1995. Surrounded on four sides by multi-generation Vermont-owned dairy farms of 80 to 300 cows, the proposal by DAFM-backed “Vermont Egg Farms” was to construct 7 buildings, an egg packing facility and possibly a composting facility. Eventually, the $8.5 million project would house 700,000 hens laying 150,000,000 eggs per year with a wholesale value of .80/dozen for gross annual sales of $10,000,000, virtually all of which would leave Vermont. The completed factory would also produce a ton of dead birds per week, the “general” mortality rate for factory-housed egg-producers.

Vermont’s DAFM replied to the Canadian egg producer that “Vermont does not have regulations regarding such an installation and you do not have to obtain a permit,” and “if new regulations are enacted in the meantime, your project will likely be grandfathered.”

In their initial proposal, Vermont Egg Farms promised to “be a very clean and low-impact operation. The project’s promoters, the Breton family, are experienced, serious operators, and are dedicated to being good neighbors to the citizens of Highgate.”

The neighboring farmers, who pre-existed the egg factory proposal, gathered facts and information about egg factories throughout the country and about Lucien Breton’s hog factory operations in Canada. They were alarmed by what they learned about potential problems with flies, noise, odors, traffic, air quality, threats from disease, chemical exposure, loss of property values, increased stress and significant impacts on water. Maine had already rejected Breton. But Vermont’s Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves welcomed the Canadian who had no ties to the community, to bring all his chickens and grain from Canada, sell almost half the eggs back to Canada with the rest going to New York, and leave behind, as it has turned out, the severely damaged lives of Vermont’s dairy farmers.

Blame the dairy farmers
In 1996, after completion of the first building of the egg factory housing 100,000 hens crammed into small cages with barely enough room to turn around, the neighbors’ worst fears came true: massive fly infestations. 1997 and 1998 turned into scenes from hell for the dairy farmers who experienced decreased milk production, increased mastitis, degraded milk quality, increased use of chemicals and overall decline in herd health. One farmer had to replace half his herd.

DAFM added to the farmers’ hardship by making them prove the flies didn't come from their dairy farms. “Unfortunately, the burden of proof was on us,” said Guy Choiniere, one of the dairy farmers. “We had to prove our claims. We had to count flies. We would put up sticky rolls (fly paper) and bring the sticky rolls to them. We had to show milk-production records. It was unbelievable the burdens they put on us. Here we were, working people, and they wanted records, records, records. It took a long time to gain their respect.”

Killing Flies
The state gave dairy farmers Frances and Donald Bessette equipment and chemicals to spray their dairy barns to kill flies. DAFM gave them Pyrethrins, which are derived from Chrysanthemums, and told them they were natural. With the cows in the barn, the Bessettes sprayed sometimes twice a day with the barn closed, the mist so thick you could hardly see the cows. Pyrethrins are poisons which have caused death in children and animals due to allergic reactions. The Pyrethrins did kill the flies.

There were no birds around the Bessette farm that summer.

In response to the Bessette’s letter of complaint in February, 1998, Governor Howard Dean wrote, “As you know, Leon Graves, Commissioner of Agriculture, has said he will deny Vermont Egg Farm a permit to expand until the fly problem has been taken care of.” The letter contained no words of support for the Vermont dairy farmers; just the implied threat that the egg factory would be allowed to expand once they control their flies.
The Canadian millionaire denied that his egg factory was the source of the flies. Eventually state entomologist Jon Turmel found that the flies were coming from the egg factory. In 1998, a Superior Court Judge issued an injunction and told the egg factory to “keep your flies at home.” DAFM denied a 1998 VEF expansion plan.

Since then, pesticides and other management devices have been used to control the flies. Although the fly problem has diminished, there has been a trade-off which has meant going from bad to worse: pesticides. Some days the smell of poisons is so strong, the neighboring dairy farmers have to close their windows. One of the pesticides in use is Cygon, or Dimethoate. EPA lists Dimethoate as “an extremely hazardous substance.” It is mutagenic, a cholinesterase inhibitor, a reproductive hazard. “All contact should be reduced to the lowest possible level,” according to M. Sittig, retired from the chemical industry and author of “Handbook of Toxic and Hazardous Chemicals and Carcinogens.”

Fly populations declined in 1999, 2000, and 2001.

The Bessettes took the egg factory to court in 2001. In his deposition in the case, North Carolina State University Entomologist Richard C. Axtell said, "it sounds like it is a heck of a lot of pesticide-spraying going on again, which, to me, indicates there is not a clear strategy here of just what to do."

A jury found that the egg factory was a nuisance and awarded the Bessettes a $50,000 judgment. However, several key pieces of evidence, such as the 1998 injunction and denial of the expansion, were excluded from the trial, and the dairy farmers have lost far more than they won. So far, the neighboring dairy farmers estimate their losses to be over half a million dollars. This collateral damage is ignored by DAFM when citing increased Gross Agricultural Product as justification for allowing this mega-polluter. Vermont citizens and farmers who abide by the law are paying the costs of factory food production.

Lucien Breton has applied to DAFM to build the second of his proposed seven hen houses. A decision must be issued by April 28, which is 45 days after the application was found to be complete.

Intervale Compost in Burlington has signed a contract to accept all the manure from the second factory egg production facility. The organic-minded Intervale’s justification for accepting the waste from the factory is that the expansion is going to be approved anyway, and they are doing the dairy farmers a favor by agreeing to accept the manure on a regular basis, thus diminishing the possibility of another fly infestation. They claim that “Compost purifies materials. Although in raw form this material is not suitable for use on organic farms, the finished compost is approved for use by NOFA-VT. Microorganisms in compost are capable of breaking compounds down and purifying materials in the process.”

The water table in Highgate is dropping, with new wells replacing historical water supplies that have gone dry. Water is a major concern anyway, and the egg factory’s expansion plans only adds to the community’s concerns for their future. The neighboring Vermont dairy farmers are scared to death. They get the feeling that nobody cares about them. Contact Commissioner Leon Graves and ask him to deny the egg factory expansion permit and show support for our family farms: .

Part III
The Agriculture Czar

"Commissioner of Agriculture Leon Graves has lost the respect of both farmers and the consumers of this state. By his actions, he has shown disdain for small farmers, thumbed his nose at laws set by the legislature and sold out to corporate special interests."
—testimony of Sherry Kawecki and Karen Shaw on the occasion of reconfirmation hearings of Vermont's Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves

Vermont has established a system of regulating agricultural operations that places sole authority in the Commissioner of Agriculture. Complaints about any and all agriculture-related activities get directed to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Governor Dean’s responses to Vermonters with concerns about health, safety, economic impacts and other problems with neighboring agricultural operations are brief and unhelpful, and pass the problems to Commissioner Leon Graves. On a memo about George Trickett’s problems, Governor Dean made the notation, “Leon, Phil: This isn’t my problem. I can’t fix this. H.” Senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords, and Congressman Bernard Sanders write more thoughtful letters and even have their staff make phone calls, but eventually the problem is passed along to Commissioner Graves. Problems with idling trucks causing diesel pollution, pesticide run-off polluting state’s waters, pesticide drift causing health effects, impacts on town roads – all complaints are referred to the man who has ultimate authority, the Agriculture Commissioner, who has the powers of a Czar. Leon Graves has been Vermont’s Agriculture Commissioner since late 1995.

Pesticide use labels restrict application during strongly stable atmospheric conditions and during high winds. But Commissioner Graves has not developed a strategy to deal with the common problem of pesticide drift, and so DAFM is not enforcing the law. “In the meantime, I appreciate your patience and remain confident that this matter can be resolved in a manner acceptable to all,” Commissioner Graves wrote to Ashley Greene in September 1999 and again in April 2000. The experience of Vermonters living with pesticide drift is that they are made to feel that they are the problem for reporting drift, and the department is unwilling and unable to work with farmers to solve the problem.

Commissioner Graves defends Vermont Egg Farm’s factory saying, "From an economic standpoint, this is a good idea." “How can he say that?” wonder the neighboring dairy farmers who are seeing their livelihoods, families, and community destroyed by an operation with no ties to the community and no benefit to the Vermont economy? “We ask the Senate and House Agriculture Committee, Commissioner Graves and the State of Vermont, how can you let this happen to our family? After twenty-four years of hard work our children can’t even inherit our farm,” wrote the Bessettes in 1997.

It appears that the current Agriculture Czar’s vision of Vermont’s agricultural future is ever larger farms, genetically modified foods, and continued reliance on pesticides. Advocates of smaller farms, local markets, value-added products, and protection of family farms have no friend in our state’s agricultural policies.

Placing so much power in the hands of one individual can lead to the kinds of frustrations Vermonters are now experiencing with agricultural issues. There is a need to change the regulatory powers and policies to allow for more and different approaches to promoting agriculture on the scale appropriate to Vermont and to eliminate the arbitrary exercise of power.

The best hope for change is to wait until we get a new Governor. But the dairy farmers in Highgate cannot wait. The mothers who are concerned about their children’s exosure to pesticides cannot wait. The fish and wildlife exposed to pesticide run-off cannot wait. None of us should be willing to wait for change. The right to farm should not mean the right to poison. A factory is not a farm.

DAFM is a poor regulator
Vermont's agriculture is in crisis, and not just because the Northeast DairyCompact was not renewed. The state has not developed a strategy to promote healthy, sustainable farming. Once called Department of Agriculture whose mission was just about farmers and farming, DOA is now DAFM, Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the agency’s mission is all Vermonters. The written mission of DAFM is “to provide consumers and the Vermont agricultural community with the highest level of service possible including ensuring and enforcing quality standards for agricultural products, regulating pesticide use, providing information, technical and marketing assistance to farmers and producers and developing new markets for Vermont products.”

DAFM is not responsive, is not providing a high level of service, is not regulating pesticide use, is not providing information, and is not supportive of Vermont's dairy farmers. Something is terribly wrong when our agriculture policies expose Vermonters to unhealthy pesticides and infringe on the economic viability of our family farms. Vermonters should have a right to farm, but no one, not even farmers, have a right to pollute the waters of the state, nor do they have the right to expose neighbors to the increased risk of birth defects or cancers by their misuse of highly toxic pesticides. The right to farm that DAFM is protecting in Highgate is factory food production, at the expense of the family farm. Allowing collateral damage is not acceptable agricultural practice.

The legislature set up the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council “to suggest programs for wise and effective pesticide use that lead to an overall reduction in the use of pesticides in Vermont.” In its 15 years of existence, VPAC has not dealt with the subject of the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Our Governor, our legislators and our courts have failed to protect Vermonters from the big money, corporate farming and chemical company interests whose agenda is being carried out by the current Agriculture Czar.

Part IV
We must change Vermont's agriculture policy

“Sustainable agriculture will never be funded, or even tolerated, by agribusiness because it is fundamentally about reducing reliance on off-farm inputs, protecting the natural environment, and empowering people to free themselves from corporate domination. Sustainable agriculture promotes smaller, more-diversified family farms because of its focus on people. It seeks greater economic rewards to farmers, rather than more profits for input suppliers. It seeks ways to farm in harmony with nature, rather than to conquer nature. And it seeks to support farming as a quality way of life, as well as a way to make a living.”
-- John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri

Vermont agriculture can be revitalized and refocused by balancing current large farm support policies with support for local small-scale agriculture and marketing it aggressively to capture the large, rapidly growing market for small scale, organic foods and developing local food markets.

1. Improve testing capabilities and make public health a priority.
2. Shift regulatory and policy powers from Commissioner to a Board of Farmers.
3. Elect Commissioner of Agriculture, or provide for non-political appointment process.
4. Establish independent regulation of air and water quality issues, including pesticides.
5. Strengthen and enforce Large Farm regulations, including evaluating water usage impacts and establishing set-backs, a land basis unit per animal, and meaningful public hearing and appeal processes.
6. Provide property tax relief for farmland, with incentives for beginning farmers.
7. Develop a 2-tiered regulatory system based on the European model.
8. Give Board of Farmers power to regulate on-farm processing and local marketing of farm products.
9. Develop fair regulations for small-scale farm processing and marketing.
10. Encourage non-governmental collaboration to oversee the creation of a local food system initiative and make changes in regulations to allow this to happen.
---Develop slaughterhouse capacity, marketing and distribution for Vermont meats.
---Organize dairy cooperative marketing groups for milk, including bottling plants.
---Establish loan programs to enable beginning farmers to take over from retiring farmers.
---Provide technical assistance to farmers on small-scale and organic production.
---Develop and implement educational programs about interrelatedness of farming practices, the quality of our food, our health and our environment.
---Develop a Vermont seal that stands for small, local, environmentally friendly farms, including standards for chemical use, labor practices, local raw materials.
---Invest in marketing local, small-scale farm products to lucrative urban markets.
---Encourage land conservation efforts that ensure viability of farm culture, not just farm land.

Vermont’s Department of Agriculture, Food, and Market’s job is to nurture the farmers so that they can flourish and nourish us with the very essence of life – the food we eat.


* Name changed by request.
*** Pesticides in Water. Costs to Health and Environment. Briefing Paper. October 2001.

Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc. compiled this report in collaboration with others after being contacted by Vermonters with their concerns. Thank you to the many Vermonters who contributed to this report. VCE is a people’s organization founded in 1999. Our mission is to conserve Vermont’s clean, healthy, rural, small-town environment and encourage economic development with minimal environmental impacts and preserve Vermont’s natural beauty. Vermonters have joined with VCE to address energy and mining projects, water pollution issues, and we continue to broaden our focus in response to the needs of Vermonters.

Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc * 789 Baker Brook Rd. * Danby, VT 05739
(802) 446-2094 *,