burlingtonfreepress.com  |  Burlington, Vermont
May 12, 2009

Vt. farmers try new way to increase hay yields, help lake

By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer

SWANTON – A group of northwestern Vermont farmers took delivery Tuesday of six machines they believe will reduce manure pollution of Lake Champlain while increasing yields of hay from farm fields.

“I really believe we can have our cake and eat it too,” Roger Rainville of the Farmers Watershed Alliance said Tuesday as he watched a demonstration of the AerWay aerator. “We can grow crops and have a cleaner lake.”

Rainville, an Alburgh farmer, said aeration has doubled hay yields on some fields, although the result is not always so dramatic.

In all, the project will cost nearly $400,000, about $220,000 for the six AerWay aeration machines and $165,000 to pay six operators to haul the machinery around Franklin County and work up to 11,000 acres of hay land.

Pulled behind a tractor, the whirling knives of an Aerway cut a line of 8-inch-deep slits in the turf of a hayfield. When farmers later spread manure, the liquid runs into the cuts where its nutrients can quickly be soaked up by the roots of growing grass.

Farmers’ usual practice of spreading manure on unaerated fields can result in large amount of manure runoff during rainstorms.

The phosphorus in manure runoff is a plant nutrient blamed in large part for noxious algae blooms in St. Albans and Missisquoi Bays.

Rainville and other farmers gathered in the sun outside Harvest Equipment, a John Deere dealership. As they watched, an Aerway sliced its way through a nearby field.

With its sharp blades turning, the machine looked like a kind of agricultural Edward Scissorhands. Behind it, dirt crumbled loosely in the slitted ground.

Members of the Farmers Watershed Alliance hope – weather allowing – to use the aeration machinery on 11,000 acres of hay land in the Missisquoi and St. Albans Bay watersheds.

The Watershed Alliance had asked the Legislature for $900,000 in federal stimulus money to purchase 12 aerators to treat 25,000 acres of corn as well as hay ground. That didn’t happen.

“The stimulus money was taking too long,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Susan Barlett, D-Lamoille, who watched the demonstration. She and Deputy Agriculture Secretary David Lane found pockets of unspent money in other programs to pay for the aerators. The Farmers Watershed Alliance will contribute as well, up to $33,000 of the cost.

Six Franklin County farm equipment operators divided up the farms in six northwestern watersheds – Rock River, Hungerford Brook, Black Creek, St. Albans Bay, the lower Missisquoi River, and direct drainage to Missisquoi Bay -- and began calling farmers to offer the aeration service, free to the farmer.

The custom operators will be paid $15 an acre.

Equipment operator Scott Magnan of St. Albans said farmers have been receptive, willing to give the unfamiliar tillage a try.

“Farmers say it seems to make sense, but they want to see how it works in reality,” he said.

St. Albans Town farmer Dick Longway is one who has signed up, saying he’ll try the aerator on about 300 acres of hayland.

Like other farmers, he’ll take the first cut of hay off his fields later this month, then call in the AerWay before he spreads manure to feed his second cutting.

“We’ll see how it does,” he said.

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or cpage@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com