Legislative Wrap Up - 2019

By: Helen Labun

Agriculture’s role in this year’s legislative session may be defined by the size of the agricultural development bills at the very end - not quite as big as the true Big Bill (the budget), S. 160 sure did its best to get there (and H. 525 wasn’t far behind). An Act Related to Agricultural Development (nee S.160, now Act 83) had everything from an affinity card for clean water to RFID tags for livestock to logger safety training. An Act Related to Miscellaneous Agricultural Subjects (a less catchy title. . .  also known as H. 525 / Act 64) covered authorization language for some well known programs, including the Rozo McLaughlin Farm to School grant program, Required Agricultural Practices, and various licensing and inspection programs, plus new ideas, such as promoting regenerative agriculture as part of an Environmental Stewardship Program. 

For the full details, you can find the text of each bill online - S. 160 / Act 83 and H. 525 / Act 64.   

Jake Claro, Farm to Plate Director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, encourages anyone perusing this legislation to look first at the topics highlighted in the opening to S.160, where the Legislature requests that VAAFM produce a series of strategic plan reports, in consultation with other stakeholders (Farm to Plate is named one of those consultees). These topics might evolve into areas of work in 2020. They focus on tracking the diversification of Vermont agriculture and what might encourage further diversification, market development analysis more broadly, marketing systems, and the potential for increasing agricultural products purchased by school nutrition programs.  

Agricultural diversification can be picked out as a theme of legislation this year. It appears in studies mandated ahead of 2020 work, and in changes made to regulation of two markets that have long been contentious - animals slaughtered on a farm and raw milk. For decades there have been fights over opening up sales of these two products, and this year major hurdles dropped away without much fuss.  

S. 160 adjusts the rules around on-farm slaughter. Andrea Stander, a policy consultant to Rural Vermont, tracked this aspect of the bill as a “quiet success story.” She says its changes will do a lot to  “. . . get local meat into local hands” and furthermore help us understand the growing market for hyper-local meat as the new system makes the practice easier to track. The legislation allows multiple purchasers as “owners” of an animal being slaughtered on-farm, so no longer will one family be asked to eat an entire cow, and it adds language regarding humane slaughter.  

The other long bill, H. 525, loosens restrictions on sales of raw milk. Farmers may now sell raw milk away from their farmstead, opening the door to more sales at farmers’ markets in particular - where previously customers had been required to pre-purchase the milk so that the transaction could be a “delivery” and not a sale. It also makes the requirements to inform customers of the risks of consuming raw milk less onerous. 

One big section of S.160 creates a working group to research the prospects of paying farmers for ecosystem services - work they do that improves the environment for everyone. This working group will consider in particular services that “. . . improve soil health, enhance crop resilience, increase carbon storage and stormwater storage capacity, and reduce agricultural runoff to waters.” The Environmental Stewardship Program in H. 525 can be seen as a complement to the working group as it is intended to promote the same practices through technical assistance and certification of farmers employing “regenerative” practices that enhance environmental health. The group’s report is due January 15th, 2020. 

One question that will dog the ecosystems working group, and which hangs over the agricultural legislation from 2019 more broadly, is how much can be achieved in repairing the relationship between farming and the environment through rewards and incentives, without strong regulatory action to stop harmful practices? There’s a lot of carrots, not a lot of sticks. The Agency of Agriculture has been questioned more or less since it began about whether their marketing and market development programs are kept sufficiently separated from their regulatory mission. Those questions continued this year, although not necessarily followed through to final legislation. 

Perhaps the best example of regulation and market development working hand in hand productively emerged in hemp. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture focused a lot of energy on creating a new hemp program (outlined in S. 58 / Act 44). Hemp, and the CBD extracted from it, is a fast growing market in an evolving regulatory world - Vermont’s changes this year, for example, came in response to the 2018 Farm Bill rules allowing industrial hemp production. As Andrea Stander explains, Vermont could get a strong foothold in this newly opened marketplace if we can ensure our state’s hemp is the best available, “. . . a reliable, artisan market for hemp that’s effective, high quality, and extremely transparent.” An agricultural inspection program can create that quality assurance and transparency. Our state regulators can also monitor and participate in federal rulemaking, for example as the FDA becomes more involved.

Regulations did tighten this year in the particular area of neonicitinoid pesticides, which have been singled out as harmful to pollinators. Per H. 205 / Act 35 these have been classified as restricted use pesticides, controlled by VAAFM and applied only by certified applicators. The legislation also requires beekeepers to register with the state as part of managing varoa mites and other pests.

A final issue to consider following this year’s legislative session is how information about what happened gets distributed to everyone affected by the changes. There are a few types of information to share to different audiences - regulatory updates, opportunities to participate in rulemaking, and the results of the various task forces and working groups. Legislation doesn’t always address how information should be shared and who has responsibility for which components. Common practice in agriculture is less direction - simply assigning follow up to an Agency (if it’s assigned at all), whereas in other sectors, such as health care or energy regulation, entire teams of lawyers might be deployed to navigate the statutory language around public outreach that comes along with a new law.

According to VAAFM Policy and Communications Director Scott Waterman, key outreach outlets utilized by VAAFM are in-person meetings, the monthly Agriview publication, press releases, and posting information on the Agency website. Waterman adds that “. . .  the Agency engages continually with the Vermont agriculture community through our social media channels to inform them of all types of important information they may need and/or want.” However, Waterman cautions that not all farmers, nor all Vermonters, are well connected on social media and so the printed Agriview newsletter remains an important communication tool.

Other organizations also provide updates during and after the legislative session. Rural Vermont and the Vermont Farm Bureau offer updates on specific proposed legislation across a broad range of topics, to both members and the public. Organizations usually provide extra outreach on priority topics on which they’re working - NOFA-VT, for example, did extensive outreach on the opportunity to comment on the hemp rulemaking, and Vermont Farm to Plate naturally engaged its audience on H.275 / Act 73, which reauthorized the Farm to Plate program. 

Producer associations can help with outreach specific to their sectors, an example is the Brewers Association which has for decades navigated the evolving (and complicated) regulatory framework for alcoholic beverages. Mary Lake, who offers workshops through the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association and NOFA0-VT, will include on-farm slaughter in her offerings. Agricultural producer associations’ capacity can wax and waned over the years, as many of them are volunteer led. Bill Mares of the Vermont Beekeepers Association commented on participating in the legislative process as a small producer association on VPR earlier this year. Stephanie Smith, at VAAFM, notes that when designing outreach plans the Agency targets groups who farmers would turn to for technical assistance - producer associations can be in this category. 

If you want to research legislative activity by specific bills, committees, witness testimony, or just browse the information available, check out the website: https://legislature.vermont.gov/. Don’t know where to start? Try the committee pages where you can find a list of bills they passed - the ones with an “Act” number passed both House and Senate and became law. Here are the links for the “Bills Out of Committee” section of House Agriculture & Forestry and Senate Agriculture. Stay tuned for more information this fall as the working groups wrap up and everyone prepares for the second half of the biennium.