Brief Update from the Legislature
This past Friday, March 15th, was crossover in the state house - this is the day that bills in policy committees need to get voted out of committee if they’re going to stay on deadline for passing this year. It’s a good indicator of priorities, although some bills do get special extensions and budget items have a later deadline.
Given that this is a traditional taking stock moment for legislative work, we checked in with some groups that spend a lot of time in the state house to find out their thoughts on legislation to watch.
Maddie Kempner from NOFA-VT says “One issue that I would encourage people to pay attention to is the issue of pesticides and pollinator protection. Several attempts to restrict usage in Vermont of the most harmful pesticides have failed in the last few years, and this year I think we have a chance at making progress in this area. H.205, for example, would take neonicotinoid pesticides (a class of pesticides found to be particularly harmful to pollinators) out of the hands of homeowners, who often overuse these chemicals. With recent research showing catastrophic declines in insect populations globally, we can't wait any longer to start taking action to protect our pollinators.”
You can read about NOFA-VT advocacy efforts and sign up for action alerts online: https://nofavt.org/programs/advocacy
Rural Vermont is another organization with a strong advocacy platform around agriculture issues. Andrea Stander is their policy consultant. She says:
“Of all the policy issues I'm working on with Rural Vermont during the current legislative session, there is one I feel holds great promise for supporting Vermont's local food system. A group of farmers, who have come together as "Poultry Farmers for Compost Foraging", are advocating for legislation that would clarify that farms that accept food residuals and use them as part of their poultry and compost operations should not be required to obtain certification as solid waste facilities because this crucial activity is indeed farming.
This change in current policy (which views food residuals as "solid waste") would enable farms all over Vermont to help small rural communities meet the State's goal of requiring composting residual food and keeping it out of landfills. In addition, incorporating the natural foraging instincts of poultry into composting operations helps produce great locally produced eggs, (which are in high demand), great chicken, and compost to keep feeding our soils.”
You can contact Andrea about this and other issues at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Vermont Farm Bureau has its eye on some major regulatory issues. Jackie Folsom is their Legislative Director, and writes a regular update, Under the Golden Dome, that can be found online (paid subscribers receive the current issue, others can see issues as they get posted in the archives).
Jackie highlights that Act 250 is being revisited, a sweeping piece of land use regulation that can affect farmers in many ways. However, getting that legislation through House Natural Resources has proven slow going. A legislative commission to review Act 250 as it turns 50 years old released its report earlier this year, but there’s no indication having a report in hand has had much effect on the committee’s ability to reach agreement. There are also conversations in both the House and Senate agriculture committees about wetlands. In regulating wetlands, the Agency of Agriculture and Agency of Natural Resources do not see eye to eye on the definitions of farming and “exception” vs. “exemption”. The Vermont Farm Bureau will be following the resolution of that question this year.
We also checked in with Jake Claro from Vermont Farm to Plate. As with the Vermont Farm Bureau, he pointed first to Act 250 changes, although he doesn’t expect anything to happen this year. The wetlands issue also came in at the top of the list. He notes that this past year things seem to have come to a turning point -- as more farmers face increased site assessment and permitting fees that they don’t believe they ought to pay, they are demanding clarity in the regulation.
If we were to follow legislative activity to based on sheer volume of bills introduced, the winner may be amendments, clarifications, and other modifications to earlier laws. Yes, this work seems bureaucratic most of the time, but Claro gives a nod to “. . . further refinement of [rules] for farms that are designed to give them the flexibility they need to remain viable and better capture the way in which farming is being practiced now, and the way in which the public understands those farming practices, vs decades ago when some of these laws were first drafted.”
Looking ahead, Claro says: “My broader sense of what’s being discussed in the legislature is a lot of proposed pieces of legislation that, either this year or next, will . . . see lots of attention [are] related to animal welfare and environmental protections -- either by way of defining livestock handling protocols or prohibiting the use of certain pesticides, consumer transparency laws, and laws designed to help the viability of smaller farms.”