When Ben Dykema was a boy growing up on his family’s dairy farm in North Ferrisburg, Vermont, he loved to fish in nearby streams, ponds and Lake Champlain. Although the busy farmer doesn’t have that kind of time these days, he’s happy that many of his 11 grandkids enjoy camping, swimming and other lakeside activities. Not that he needs nudging, but it’s a constant reminder of why he and other farmer-members of the nonprofit Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition take such care to protect the watershed around them. “My farm is 110 feet from the lake’s high-water line in the spring,” Ben says. “My mission here is to do everything we can to protect it.”
Ben’s parents, Wilma and Cornelius Dykema, emigrated from Holland and settled in Vermont to farm in 1967. Ben and his wife Kris raised five children on the farm, one of whom sadly passed away. His spirit is honored with a sweet vacation cabin the family rents out called “Jordan’s 4 Seasons Log Cabin”.
Ben says he welcomes the opportunity to offer farm tours to visitors who come from all over to stay in the beautiful, peaceful spot. “So few people these days really understand what goes into farming,” he says. “The city people are always saying, ‘Wow, I never knew that.’ I wish all consumers could come visit and see for themselves.”
One of the major efforts Ben has undertaken over the last several years is cover-cropping many of his acres of corn fields, which basically means seeding them with a crop like rye in fall after the feed for his herd is harvested. The rye serves a few purposes: its root systems help build and aerate the soil while also holding the soil down like a big net, preventing soil erosion during heavy fall and spring rains or snow melt.
The cover crop also helps when it comes time to plant corn again. The soil is more able to absorb the manure that is spread as a natural fertilizer and then, ideally, Ben can plant corn without tilling because the rye has kept the soil active and workable. “We’re all on this learning curve together,” he says. No-till agriculture also minimizes the need for running heavy machinery through a field, which compacts soil and reduces its access to beneficial oxygen. “We’re allowing the soil to have a lot of breathing room,” he says, “and it also helps us keep the good bacteria and the good bugs.”
With cover-cropping and some important underlying drainage work, Ben feels like key fields have improved significantly in both their production capacity and their potential impact on the lake. In the spring, he says, he can stand on the soil and feel that it’s happier and healthier. “It’s like a sponge, able to better drink in the water and the nutrients,” he says. “You can really feel that under your feet.”
What farmers are doing to protect our water
To help the public better understand the benefits of cover crops and other environmentally friendly farming practices, three Vermont farmer watershed protection groups have partnered to produce a short video. Protecting the Soil: Cover Crops for Clean Water was developed by the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, Connecticut River Watershed Farmers Alliance and Farmers’ Watershed Alliance in cooperation with University of Vermont Extension. It features Vermont agronomists and farmers discussing strategies for using winter cover crops to help protect Lake Champlain and other state waterways.
What you can do to protect our water
While farmers take care of their fields in ways that protect our watersheds, we can all take care of our lawns with the same goal in mind.Phosphorus, a nutrient that can cause problems when it reaches excessive levels in Lake Champlain and many other lakes, is found in many lawn and garden fertilizers. When fertilizers run off from lawns and find their way to lakes, they feed unsightly, smelly and potentially toxic blue-green algal blooms. Here are some tips on how to care for your lawn in a watershed-friendly way: http://www.lawntolake.org/index.htm