Jan. 3, 2016
By Mike Faher
Vermont’s new water-quality law comes with many new requirements for farmers.
But how Vermont will enforce mandatory agricultural practices is still a matter of debate.
While the House and Senate agricultural committees are considering a long list of issues in 2016, ranging from departmental fees to honey bees, officials say the primary focus will be the implications of sweeping new water-quality standards for livestock and land management.
“If (farmers) have concerns about what they’ve heard or how this is going to come down, they need to get ahold of their legislators,” said Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “We’ll also be holding a hearing or two in the spring, probably later in the session.”
The water-quality law, Act 64, cites widespread impairment of Vermont’s waters as the basis for far-reaching regulations on farms, towns and businesses.
For farms, that rule-making process is well under way. The state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has wrapped up a public comment period on a set of draft water quality rules and has held more than 20 meetings on the issue across the state, said Diane Bothfeld, the agency’s deputy secretary for dairy policy.
Topics covered by the agency’s draft rules include buffer zones; small-farm certification; nutrient storage and management; soil health; and livestock exclusion. In the latter category, for example, the proposed rules limit where livestock get access to surface water.
Other draft rules include restrictions on when and where manure can be stored and applied; a requirement for a 25-foot buffer zone protecting surface water; and new land-management practices to alleviate erosion.
“It’s a big job, but it’s a very important job,” Bothfeld said. “You want to write rules in ways that people understand … making sure the language is right, making sure it makes sense.”
Act 64 says new agricultural water rules must be in place by July 1, and Bothfeld said the next step is to take the agency’s proposals to legislators. While that legislative debate can’t go on indefinitely, Starr emphasized that there’s still time to make changes. “Farmers should understand that just because they heard something at a hearing doesn’t mean it’s set in stone,” he said. “It can be altered and fixed.”
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham and chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, said she has been hearing concerns about the water-quality law, especially from smaller farmers.
“A lot of folks who you would call small farmers had no idea what the (state’s) accepted agricultural practices were and had no idea how to comply with them,” Partridge said. Now that Act 64 upgrades those practices from “accepted” to “required,” Partridge said, “I think we need a very strong educational piece to make sure people know what’s going on and are not blindsided, and also have an opportunity to weigh in.”
It’s not just the state’s water-quality rules that farmers and food producers need to be concerned about. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has developed regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and those policies were the subject of a recent meeting in Brattleboro.
Local officials say the state needs more FDA funding to implement the new regulations, which make significant changes to food inspection requirements.
“We want to make sure the feds get it right, and we also want to have it set up so that they give us money and we can do our own inspections,” Starr said. “As a state, we may even have to do some cost-sharing. Because it’s a benefit to our producers and to the people of Vermont to make sure these inspections are done and we’re shipping the best of the best to our consumers.”
From the Agency of Agriculture’s perspective, the state may need more legal authority to broadly implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. “We will propose some draft legislation to give us that authority,” Bothfeld said.
State and federal rule-making aside, Starr, Partridge and Bothfeld named a number of other topics they’d like to tackle in 2016, including:
• Taxes. Partridge said she has concerns about the way Vermont is taxing some farming operations and equipment, “in particular the sales and use taxes. We took a bunch of testimony last year.”
“There are some things that are being taxed that shouldn’t be,” Partridge said. “For instance, fencing. Gates are being taxed. There is a provision in the law for sales-tax exemption for agricultural equipment.”
Addressing the issue may happen via a mix of education, Department of Taxes regulation and statutory revision, Partridge said. “Retailers really want to be doing the right thing, but they just don’t know what the right thing is,” she said. “We want Vermont to be a good place to do business, and having this kind of confusion makes that difficult.”
• Energy siting. Starr wants to “take a hard, long look” at large-scale solar facilities being built on agricultural land, and he sees a need for more agricultural consideration in the state’s Section 248 permitting process for energy facilities.
“It’s pretty easy to go out into a field and set up all these panels,” Starr said. “But we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars protecting agricultural soils in this state because we thought they were critical to our well-being.”
• Fees. Starr said the Agency of Agriculture will propose changes to fees for services including weights and measures inspections of equipment like store scales and gasoline pumps.
• Education. Starr expects his committee will propose changes to the state’s 2+2 FARMS program, which provides tuition scholarships to a small group of students each year.
The program sends students to Vermont Technical College where they earn a two-year associate’s degree in dairy farm management technology, then matriculate to the University of Vermont for a bachelor’s degree. Lawmakers have been talking to graduates in preparation for revamping the program “to offer more variety for young people to look at and still qualify for scholarships,” Starr said.
“A lot of things have changed over the years in agriculture,” he said. “We’re more diversified now. More people are into cheeses and organics and fruits and vegetables.”
• Farm diversification. Officials are concerned about regulatory gray areas that have caused conflict in some parts of the state. For example, when does a farm that offers regular, well-attended burger nights become something more akin to a restaurant?
While no legislation has yet been introduced on the topic, Bothfeld said officials have been gathering information on the issue for a few years and hope to soon present their findings to legislators. “We’re trying to help define and give some parameters to farms that do value-added agriculture,” she said.
• Bees. Partridge wants to take a closer look at a bill that would ban neonicotinoids, a pesticide that has been linked to declining bee populations. H.236, introduced by Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, says 15 countries have imposed a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids and several U.S. cities also have banned the substance.
“We haven’t had an incident of colony collapse in the state of Vermont yet,” Partridge said. “Obviously, we don’t want to have one.”