By Maddie Kempner, NOFA-VT Policy Director
Vermont is on the cusp of becoming one of the first states in the nation to compensate farmers and other land stewards for ecosystem services—a suite of benefits provided by functioning ecosystems that support human life: clean water, pollination, and flood mitigation, to name a few. While the concept of paying farmers for these benefits – beyond the food and fiber they produce – is novel and full of promise, the approach Vermont takes could either lead to incremental improvements that ultimately don't reverse our ecological crisis, or guide us to radically re-envision our relationship with the land that sustains us.
The approach gaining traction in Vermont's Soil Health and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group has so far, unfortunately, been the former. The working group, created by the legislature in 2019 at the prompting of Vermont's farmer watershed alliances, quickly became fixated on soil health as a panacea to all of our ecological and agricultural woes.
It's true that healthy soils are critical: healthy soil has the capacity to hold more water, making land more resilient to the increased flooding and drought we're experiencing due to climate change. Healthy, rich soil can also store more carbon, drawing it out of the atmosphere and mitigating its warming effects on our planet.
However, focusing too narrowly on improving soil health in farm fields (by planting cover crops, for example) risks ignoring the multitude of other simple, practical, and cost-effective steps farmers can take to enlist their whole farms and field edges in the task of restoring ecological health.
In addition to the climate crisis, scientists have confirmed we are also in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, where hundreds of species are expected to be lost within several generations. What if Vermont could set an example of how farming and land stewardship practices can actively work to restore the habitat on which threatened species depend, while providing nutritious food for our communities and buffering us all against the worst impacts of climate change?
This may sound complicated and costly to achieve. It doesn't have to be. In practice, it looks like restoring or protecting wetlands, or planting native trees and shrubs along streams and rivers, or letting cover crops flower before tilling them under or crimping them. These practices promote biodiversity and provide habitat for beneficial species. The outcome? Farmers save money by benefiting from farmland that is more resilient in the face of new pest and disease pressures, the need for toxic inputs is greatly reduced or eliminated, and the crucial ecosystem functions that allow us to have a stable food supply, clean water, and breathable air are restored.
We must be bold in imagining a model of land stewardship that restores ecosystems and recognizes that everything in nature is connected to everything else. Farmers already know this. They have the skills, knowledge, and passion to lead this work, but they cannot be asked to do it without our support. Farmers already face prices that don't cover their costs, and regulations that can be expensive and onerous. Farmers cannot also be asked to do the work of restoring ecosystems (on top of keeping us all fed!) without fair compensation.
Vermont can show leadership, and put this vision into action, by providing farmers with a Universal Basic Income. If we expect farmers to care for our lands in a way that goes beyond the most essential work of providing food, we must ensure first and foremost that their basic human needs are met. Granting a base level of income to those who grow our food might be the only way to ensure our land and all the lives that depend on it can also thrive.
Vermont's Soil Health and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group should design a program that improves soil health, yes. But it cannot start and end there. If we are to truly restore ecosystems and the myriad services they provide, we must care for all the life forms—human and non-human, seen and unseen—on which we all depend.
By providing in this way for those who provide for us, we will usher in a new paradigm of land management where we truly value farms for all of the life-sustaining benefits they can provide.