Agricultural Production and Economic Value in the Lake Champlain Basin

Authors: Anna Svagzdys & Andrea Haney

The Lake Champlain Basin is home to fertile soils and, in the lowlands, a relatively long growing season, averaging from 150 days on the shoreline to 105 days in the high altitudes (Lake Champlain Basin Program, 2006). This makes certain parts of the area ideal for agriculture. The Basin supports about 5,000 farms on around over 1,000,000 acres (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2007). 16% of land in the Basin is devoted to agriculture (see the Lake Champlain Basin Atlas for a detailed map: (The Lake Champlain Basin Atlas, 2004).

In 2007, the agricultural sector in the Champlain Basin grossed almost 7 million dollars. By far the largest share of this came from the dairy industry: in nearly every county in the basin, milk and other dairy products make up the largest portion of the gross profit from agriculture. Also, dairy production tended to use the most agricultural land, whether for pasture, hay or corn or grass silage. Other agricultural commodities varied from county to county: top-grossing products included poultry and eggs; fruits and berries; nursery and greenhouse plants; vegetables, melons and potatoes; and grains, dry beans and oilseeds. Large amounts of acreage were also devoted to production of apples, soybeans, Christmas trees, vegetables and corn for grain (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2007).

Cows being milked

Dairy is an important component to the economic value of agriculture.

Agriculture has many externalities, both positive and negative, on the Lake Champlain Basin. Obvious negative externalities include erosion and runoff of phosphorus and bacteria from fertilized fields. Positive externalities include aesthetics, communities, and local identity. Gradual changes in the industry, such as conversion to organic practices and the growth of local markets, seek to reduce the negatives and increase the positives.

  • In the United States, direct sales from farms to individuals increased 37% from 1997 to 2002 (Katz, 2006). Proponents of local agriculture suggest farms that direct sales to individuals via farmer’s markets, farm stands and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) help to strengthen rural communities as well as rural economies, encouraging participation in a “working landscape” and boosting profit margins for farmers. The Basin is home to about 60 farmers’ markets and 40 CSA farms (VT Agency of Agriculture, NY State Department of Agriculture and Markets).
  • Organic farming methods, as well as preventing runoff of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and hormones, have also proven to be economically profitable in the Basin area. A 1999 study showed that in that year, organic dairies earned almost twice as much net profit per cow as conventional dairies (McCrory, 2001). The Vermont region of the Basin holds about 380 certified organic farms—almost 10% of all farms in the area (Northeast Organic Farming Association of VT).
  • Additionally, farms in the Basin area are involved in various kinds of renewable energy innovations. Cate Farm in Plainfield powers its tractors on biodiesel, using waste oil from restaurants as useful energy—and as a cost-saver: the biodiesel costs an estimated 60 cents per gallon to produce, not including labor (Grubinger, 2006). The Central Vermont Public Services Cow Power program contracts with six farms in the Basin to produce electricity from methane released by anaerobic digestion of manure. This prevents a powerful greenhouse gas from being reduced into the atmosphere and produces weed-free, pathogen-free compost and fertilizer as well as harnessable energy (Central VT Public Services, 2009).

Central Vermont Public Services. (2009). CVPS Cow Power. Retrieved from

The Lake Champlain Basin Atlas. (2004). People and economy: Land use. Retrieved from

The Lake Champlain Basin Atlas. (2004). Political boundaries. Retrieved from

Lake Champlain Basin Program. (2006). Fact sheet #3. Retrieved from

Grubinger, V. (2006). Case study: Richard Wiswall, Cate Farm, Plainfield Vermont: On-farm biodiesel production from waste vegetable oil. Retrieved from

Katz, S. E. (2006). The revolution will not be microwaved: Inside America’s underground food movement. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

McCrory, L. (2001). An economic comparison of organic and conventional dairy production, and estimations on the cost of transitioning to organic production. Retrieved from

New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. New York State farmers’ markets. Retrieved from

Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. Vermont certified organic farms. Retrieved from

USDA Census of Agriculture. (2007). 2007 Census Publications: State and County Profiles. Retrieved from

Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Where to buy Vermont food and farm products. Retrieved from

Agroecology and Multifunctional Food Systems:

The Intervale Center is an agricultural landscape located inBurlington that serves as a start-up operation for new farms and provides multiple cultural and ecosystem services to the community. Located on the Winooski river floodplain this area is directly connected to lake Champlain. The agricultural food products produced in the region provide important ecological

functions through integrated crop and livestock systems.

Aerial view of the Intervale

Aerial view of the Intervale, Burlington, VT.

For the last 10,000 years the Intervale site has been a working agricultural landscape.  The Native American tribe the Abenaki first cultivated the fertile land more than a 1,000 years ago. As European settlement grew the Abenaki nation was displaced, cash crops such as wheat and dairy operations soon took hold.  The Intervale Center (IC)
was first launched in 1988 as an agricultural non-profit organization to promote sustainable land use, agricultural education, and successful small scale farms.  Through the integration of agroecology based principles the IC has provided a plethora of nutritious organic food for the surrounding residents and restaurants.  This function is a directly related to Lake Champlain and the ecosystem services it provides.

Champlain context:

  • Agroecology food systems were developed as an alternative to industrial, high external input agriculture.  These methods use ecological principles and require minimal chemical inputs thereby reducing nutrient runoff into the lake.
  • The landscape multifunctionality approach considers the functions of the larger landscape.  When applying these concepts to agroecosystems, the multifunctional landscape approach suggests that overall performance of the agricultural system is improved with few external costs.

Structure, Function, and Value:

  • By combining or stacking multiple functions in the agricultural landscape additional ecosystem services can be provided, as opposed to a focus on constrained production functions from traditional monocrop systems.
  • An important step in the design process is incorporating ecological principles and a social mission along with agricultural production.
  • There is great value in Vermont’s pastoral history. The state is a leader in organic agriculture with a strong movement for local agriculture.  The number of farmers markets have more than tripled in the past two decades. In more than 50 communities gross sales reached $3.7 million.
  • Supporting ecologically based food production provides positive externalities that benefit the community; fresh and nutritious foods, support to local farmers, increased food security, and reduced environmental impacts of food transportation.

Lovell, S.T., et al. Integrating agroecology and landscape
multifunctionality in
Vermont: An evolving framework to evaluate the design of
agroecosystems. Agricultural
Systems. (2010)