Vermont’s citizen legislators returned to Montpelier last month, with full plates. And while this year’s election cycle—as well as lightning-rod issues like marijuana legalization, paid sick leave, and the state’s budget deficit—will surely suck up much of the capital’s political oxygen, there’s plenty at stake for the state’s small farmers and local eaters.
The small-scale farming sector in Vermont is thriving. While farms around the country continue to consolidate into fewer and fewer hands, the number of Vermont farms is on the rise, and the average size of farms in the state is actually shrinking. But as the state’s agricultural economy shifts toward small-scale, diversified farming, so too must its regulatory framework. For many small farmers, state regulations designed for large-scale industry impose costly barriers between farmer and consumer and lack the flexibility required of today’s small farm.
Here’s what Vermont’s small farmers, and the local consumers who support them, are likely to focus on in the 2016 legislative session:
Facing an ultimatum from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, state lawmakers last year passed Act 64, a sweeping new law aimed at cleaning up the state’s impaired waterways.
Act 64 directed the Agency of Agriculture to create a broad new set of regulations for Vermont farms, called the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), to reduce nutrient runoff from agricultural lands, which contributes an estimated 40 percent of the total phosphorous load in Lake Champlain. For the first time, the agency will regulate the estimated 3,000 small farms in Vermont.
Following a period of public comment on the preliminary draft of the RAPs (read Rural Vermont’s comments here), the newest draft is set to be released in early February, with an implementation deadline of July 1st. Not surprisingly, a majority of public comments submitted to the agency came from small farmers, many of whom find the draft rules far too rigid for the diversified nature of small-scale farming, while failing to provide incentives for regenerative farming practices that can actually improve water quality.
While this process continues, small farmers across the state will be lobbying lawmakers and regulators to ensure that the state’s waters are protected, without sacrificing the economic viability of their livelihoods. On February 24th, small farmers will descend on the Statehouse to bring this message to legislators as part of Rural Vermont’s Small Farm Action Day.
Vermont’s raw milk producers advocated successfully for improvements to the law adopted by the legislature in 2015. These incremental changes included the ability to deliver pre-sold milk to farmers’ markets and sensible animal testing reform. Though the changes were hard-fought, much more work remains to create a truly fair and common-sense regulatory framework that allows raw milk producers to sustain viable small businesses and protects consumers’ access to this high-demand food.
The comprehensive raw milk bill, H. 426, introduced by Rep. Teo Zagar in 2015, remains before the House Agriculture & Forest Products Committee. It is unlikely that this bill will navigate the entire legislative process in this second year of the biennium, but raw milk producers and consumers will continue to press lawmakers for further improvements to Vermont’s raw milk economy.
After years of organizing and advocacy by small-scale farmers, the legislature adopted a provision in 2013 that codified, in a very limited capacity, the time-honored tradition of farmers raising, slaughtering, and selling livestock directly to their neighbors. For generations, this has been—and will remain—a critical part of Vermont’s rural economy, but prior to 2013, industrial-scale regulations had forced the practice underground.
Unfortunately, the provision allowing for on-farm slaughter is again set to expire on July 1, 2016. Farmers who rely on this practice to feed their communities will be lobbying their lawmakers to lift that expiration and are looking to expand the law to allow more farmers and eaters alike to enjoy truly local, safe, farm-fresh meat.
In the past two weeks, both the House and Senate Committees on Agriculture have heard substantial testimony on the House and Senate bills that would prohibit the sale and application in Vermont of neonicotinoid pesticides, as well as seeds that are pre-treated with neonicotinoids. Much of the testimony has centered on research that implicates neonicotinoids as one of the leading causes of the recent decline in bee health, affecting their flight, navigation, body movement, and life expectancy. Though some farmers and orchardists apply these pesticides in a targeted and limited manner, nearly all conventional field corn and soybean seeds planted each year in the state are pre-treated with neonicotinoids.
An additional bill, introduced by Rep. David Deen, proposes to establish a “Pollinator Protection Advisory Committee,” comprised of legislators, agency staff, academics, and citizen stakeholders. The committee would be directed to produce a report and recommendations for improving pollinator health in Vermont to the legislature by January 2017.
Lawmakers and Vermonters alike celebrate the reemergence of the state’s local food economy, and rightly so, but the farmers fueling that growth continue to face unnecessary barriers. As the 2016 legislative session heads toward the growing season, small farmers and the communities they feed must continue their call for flexible, scale-appropriate regulations, particularly those that recognize and reward regenerative practices that build soils, produce healthy foods, and improve the quality of Vermont’s waterways.
Andrew Bahrenburg is the Organizer & Advocate for Rural Vermont, and a former educator in the UVM Farmer Training Program. Throughout the 2016 legislative session, he’ll be providing UVM Food Feed with updates from Montpelier.