Neighbors rally to help farmer control runoff

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(Host) When a dairy farmer in Worcester tried to find a way to stop the manure from flowing into the Winooski River, he found it would be an expensive proposition. Enter some friends and neighbors who are raising money to help him build a manure pit.

VPR’s John Dillon went to the Worcester farm to see what brought everyone together.

(Farmer Bob Compagna) “She’s a first calf heifer, she’s due in another month.”

(Dillon) Bob Compagna has worked this river valley land north of Montpelier for about 20 years. The 63-year old is bearded, stocky and on a first-name basis with his 40 Jerseys.

(Compagna) “Come on Fay-Fay! C’mon good looking! C’mon good looking, come on!”

(Dillon) Years of back breaking work have made it hard for Compagna to walk any distance at all. So he uses an ATV to show visitors around the farm.

This is the last dairy farm in Worcester. The others went out of business years ago. Their fields and pastures have sprouted homes or they’ve filled in with brush.

Compagna’s farmhouse and barn were built in the 1830s. The farm lies on a sharp bend of the North Branch of the Winooski River, where the small stream cuts through the fields and curves close to the red barn.

Too close, as it turns out.

In the winter, the manure collects in an open cement pit below the barn. After the spring thaw, Compagna points out, the waste flows downhill toward the river.

(Compagna) “Once it warms up, as you can see where it’s running down there now, it just keeps right on sliding.”

(Dillon) Compagna says he’s tried hard to protect the river. He doesn’t spread manure near its banks and he hates to see the water polluted.

(Compagna) “If you come right down to it, farmers are the ones that are taking care of it because they don’t want to screw up the river more than anything else.”

(Dillon) He applied for private grants and federal funding to build a new manure pit, but was repeatedly turned down. Eventually, a state program will pay for half the cost. But he has to come up with all of the money before he can be reimbursed.

(Compagna) “Milk business ain’t that great. It’s good now but two years ago, milk was down to $10 a hundred. It cost me $13 maybe $13.50 to make it. And when you’re only getting $10, there ain’t much left.”

(Dillon) Compagna wasn’t looking for a hand-out but his friends and neighbors wanted to help. Bill Haines is a retired high school teacher who lives next door.

(Haines) “We got together and just said, ‘Okay, let’s figure out what can happen here, and how we can make something happen.’ And as we discovered, the hard part about the whole thing is that the money has to be up front to do the construction, to rebuild the manure pit and to reinforce the barn. And then the Department of Agriculture pays at the end. So that means you’ve got to come up with somewhere between $40,000-$50,000 to begin with and that’s the tough part.”

(Dillon) The group has raised money with a raffle, a benefit concert, even a game of cow-flop bingo. Their latest idea is to have the public symbolically adopt some of Compagna’s cows. For a $50 minimum contribution, a donor gets an adoption certificate and a picture of the brown-eyed Jersey. They launched a Web site, and the adopt-a-cow idea has drawn donations from as far away as California.

So far, the group has raised around $3,000. It’s also received donated materials for the construction work.

Kim Kendall is a scientist with the Vermont Natural Resources Council in Montpelier, and has volunteered as the bookkeeper on the Compagna farm project. She points out that what happens here – multiplied by dozens of farms – affects Lake Champlain downstream. he phosphorus in farm waste feeds toxic algae blooms in the big lake.

(Kendall) “This is really the source, this is where it’s coming from.”

(Dillon) Kendall says the public may be surprised that state government has not stepped up to pay the entire cost of projects like Compagna’s.

(Kendell) “I think there may be a perception out there by a lot of people that the state is taking care of this. And they’re not. I think if you were to go out during a rainstorm or during spring melt, and sort of looked at these small and medium sized farms, you would find a lot of problems. And you would find a lot of frustrated farmers, because I think a lot of farmers do want to do something about it.”

(Dillon) Even though funds are tight, Compagana has started work on the project. A small bulldozer pushes away an old retaining wall and prepares the site for the new pit. Compagna says he didn’t want to wait through another winter and spring when his farm could damage the river.

(Compagna) “We’ll get it started and get it headed in the right direction. We’ll just look for some more money and hopefully it comes in. But we got to get it done this year.”

(Dillon) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Worcester.

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