UVM study of Cuban farming methods gives insights on Vt. water quality woes

Published: Jan. 30, 2020 at 5:52 PM EST
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Scientific diplomacy was in action Thursday with the release of new research about water quality. And while the study was done in Cuba, it has a Vermont connection that is applicable to local farmers and the Lake Champlain basin.

When Mae Kate Campbell came back from Cuba, her luggage was 30 pounds of dirt and water. All samples for the University of Vermont geology grad student's research on water quality and erosion.

"It's been really cool to see how Cuban scientists approach this problem a little bit differently," Campbell said.

She was part of the first joint Cuba-U.S. geology team in half a century to work together and share knowledge. She and her professor, Paul Bierman, went there to study the impact of Cuba's agriculture practices on their river water quality.

"They don't have issues like we do with water quality in the lakes and reservoirs," Bierman said.

What they found could have impacts here. Bierman says after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to fend for itself. And to avoid a food crisis, they turned to diversified farming techniques that include less fertilizer, less tilling, and more composting.

Bierman's lab put that idea through scientific tests to see if it was really those sustainable farming practices that kept their water clean. "The stream waters in Cuba carry a lot less of the nutrients, the fertilizers, that are spread on the land; so, less nitrogen, less phosphorus. And those might be familiar because those are the things that cause algal blooms in Lake Champlain," Bierman said.

That's a lesson, he says, for Vermont as we struggle with water quality issues. Because we have strong organic farming practices, that could be the solution. "I think what this demonstrates is that it works," Bierman said. "There is obviously a trade-off that you're going to get -- lower yields -- but I think there's probably a sweet spot in the middle there where you can put on enough fertilizer to do what you need to do, but not so much fertilizer on that you end up polluting waterways."

One area they say Cuba could learn from Vermont is in keeping farm animals out of the water to reduce E. coli levels.