Ecosystem services are the “ecosystem functions that are useful to humans.”1 Agricultural landscapes in Vermont can be managed to enhance ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, climate regulation, biodiversity, and cultural identity. Compensating farmers for providing these additional benefits to society beyond food production via a payment for ecosystem services (PES) program would financially recognize farmers’ contributions to meeting pressing environmental goals such as the Lake Champlain Basin Total Maximum Daily Load plan, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and flood resilience, and also enhance the viability of farms committed to environmental stewardship. However, creating a viable PES program to make transformative change will require policy and regulatory changes and new sources of capital, as well as technological, programmatic, and market developments that do not currently exist.
A payment for ecosystem services program is premised on the idea that actions to improve or sustain ecosystem services should be economically quantified and rewarded. Farmers and conservationists in Vermont see PES as an innovative tool to enhance ecological stewardship and complement existing conservation incentive programs available to farmers. Current conservation programs typically solve environmental concerns by paying farmers for the implementation cost of discrete, prescriptive practices, as do most U.S. PES programs (e.g., the Conservation Reserve Program).2 Farmers in Vermont are interested in developing a PES program which instead pays for performance, as an opportunity to receive payment for services provided, learn more about the specific ecological impacts of management changes on their farmland, and recognize and reward the initiative, ingenuity, and know-how of farmers who have already invested in conservation practices.3 A PES program in Vermont would make payment contingent on the steady provision of services such as water purification, flood mitigation, aquifer recharge, erosion control, and biodiversity.
Due to the initiative of farmer-led Watershed Coalitions and UVM Extension, in 2019 the Vermont Legislature established a Soil Conservation Practices and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group, which focused on soil health as the foundation to multiple ecosystem services. Designing a PES program which balances the goals and needs of all stakeholders is challenging. Multiple efforts are underway to determine what to measure, how to measure, how to structure payments, and how to balance efficiency with fairness, while allowing farmers the flexibility to innovate and adapt.
Adoption of agricultural best management practices across the state of Vermont could sequester 50,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.