ORLEANS COUNTY - An aerial seeding pilot project is now over for the year, but farmers who participated had their fields seeded with a winter cover crop early by a helicopter.
The Chaput Family Farm in North Troy is the only Orleans County farm that participated, said Jeff Sanders, the agronomy outreach professional with University of Vermont Extension, which facilitated the program. About 20 farms state-wide utilized the program. Approximately half of those who signed up for the benefit did not receive it as there were technical problems getting started this first year. But the hope is to improve the program so that all farms across the state can benefit.
Sanders said he would also like to see more helicopters used.
This is not the first time aerial seeding has been practiced in the state. Sanders has heard talk from older farmers who used airplanes for seeding, but financial assistance diminished, ending the programs of the past.
The new program is designed to help Vermont farmers and help water quality, as well. The hope is that funding will continue to provide support. The program cost the farmers $10 per acre.
When farmers plant a winter cover crop, such as winter rye, it holds nutrients in the soil and prevents run-off. When the helicopter seeds the fields, the work is done in one day, sooner than when farmers typically do the planting, which allows for more developed crops. When soil is left bare, it is subject to erosion. This erosion occurs through wind, rain, and spring snow melt. When no cover crop is present, nutrients and soil can erode away into a nearby waterway and cause pollution. Farmers' fields are nutrient rich, and those nutrients can easily be lost without protection.
In the spring, the winter crops (green manure) are tilled into the earth, creating healthy fertile soils that should produce better crops.
“This is a win-win situation,” said Sanders.
The roots of winter rye grab hold of nutrients and keep them, and work to hold soil in place, even in rapid snow melt Sanders explained in an interview.
The helicopter can get the seeds down quickly, which saves the farmer time, labor, and equipment use. And it’s a win for the watershed, Sanders said.
Across Orleans County and other counties, erosion and leaching out of nutrients in to the watershed is causing excessive nutrient loading into many lakes. Locally, Lake Memphremagog suffers from this problem. Excessive nutrients plague the lake causing unwanted plant growth and increasing the potential for the feared toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria).
A large portion of the nutrients come from agricultural run-off. If farmers can keep those nutrients in the fields where they want them, it’s a winning situation all around.
The one-year pilot program was federally and state funded. It is a pricey program, but the hope is that it continues every year, Sanders said. Some advocates will work to persuade the Vermont Legislature to keep the program going.