Origins & Early Years
In the 1980’s farmers found themselves caught between rising costs and plunging prices. For farmers it was a period of crisis in many ways comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. In 1985, 1,173 farms went out of business every week across the United States, and in Vermont, while the rate of farm loss was not quite as swift, the landscape was noticeably changing. New golf courses, shopping malls and subdivisions were appearing where there were once pasturelands and green hills and valleys nestling those familiar red barns and old silos.
In addition to failed federal policies, falling milk prices, and rising costs, Vermont farmers saw their property taxes soar in the early 1980’s. It was in this period of crisis that Rural Vermont was born. Founded by Anthony Pollina, Rural Vermont was set up to assist farmers with their legal and financial problems, but it shortly became something more powerful – Rural Vermont became a means for farmers to speak out.
Rural Vermont went on to reform the Current Use Program, also known as Vermont’s Agricultural and Managed Forest Land Use Value Program, in which taxation is assessed on the productive value of land rather than being assessed on the value for potential development. For more information on the Current Use Program contact the Vermont Department of Taxes.
Reforming the Current use program was a huge feat for farmers and for Rural Vermont. However, milk prices continued to drop and federal policies continued to support corporate interest and drive farmers out of business. In 1986 Rural Vermont demanded that the state take some responsibility for the crisis occurring within its own borders and organized a series of milk dumping actions to protest the federally mandated price cut attributed to a milk surplus. As a result of these actions, Vermont’s farmers won a first in the nation $.50 per hundredweight direct payment from the state to make up for the federal price cut.
In addition, Rural Vermont went on to help create the Northeast Dairy Compact, which controlled dairy-pricing policy at the regional level. It included the six New England states and created a Commission of farmers, consumers and dairy processors in the region who, since 1997, set a price for fluid milk above the federal price, which is often 25% below the farmer’s cost of production. For many farmers, it meant the difference between losing their farms and being able to hang on. The Compact was not renewed and so expired in 2001. However, there is some debate over reestablishing a Nation wide program modeled after the Compact.
For dairy farmers caught in an economic crisis attributed to an overproduction of milk – the introduction of a genetically engineered hormone designed to boost milk production in cows could only exacerbate the illogical nature and unfairness of the system. Vermont farmers saw this right away and along with Rural Vermont were the first to organize against the introduction of rBGH as early as 1988.
In 1994, the result of years of public education and advocacy by Rural Vermont, Vermont became the first state in the country to legislate mandatory labeling of dairy products made from cows injected with rBGH. The law was in effect for a year before it was blocked by a lawsuit filed by the International Dairy Food Association (IDFA). IDFA claimed the law infringed on a company’s right not to speak. Rural Vermont fought the lawsuit, but the mandatory labeling law was ultimately lost when a Federal Appeals Court ruled in IDFA’s favor in August 1996.
Rural Vermont also worked on campaigns against free trade agreements aware of the detrimental effect they would have on family farmers all around the world. When the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were being negotiated in the early 1990’s Rural Vermont began to organize against them.
Recent History (the past decade)
In 2004 Rural Vermont successfully passed the Farmers’ Right to Know GE Seed Labeling and Registration Act. This law puts the USDA organic standards’ definition of “genetically modified” into Vermont statute, and requires that GE seeds be clearly labeled as such.
In 2006, Rural Vermont was successful in advocating for the passage of seed liability for genetic contamination. The Farmer Protection Act, which would have placed the liability for genetic crossover on the corporations that produce the seed rather than on the farmers, passed through the legislature, however was vetoed by Governor Douglas.
Also in 2006, the State of Vermont proposed implementing a National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a federal plan to ear-tag and track the movements of every domestic livestock animal in the United States. This would have been a great burden on farms, especially the smallest operations. With the help of Rural Vermont and numerous active farmers and farm supporters, this implementation did not happen, and in early 2010 the USDA dropped their plans to implement NAIS.
In 2007, Rural Vermont helped to create and pass the “Chicken Bill,” which allows poultry farmers who raise and slaughter fewer than 1,000 birds on-farm to sell directly from the farm or at farmers’ markets and restaurants. Most importantly, this law does not require expensive farm infrastructure investments or trucking birds to an inspected slaughter facility.
In 2008, Rural Vermont helped to expand raw milk farmers’ ability to sell their product by expanding the sales limit, lifting the ban on advertising, and beginning to work on a framework to allow delivery. In 2009, Rural Vermont helped to create a tiered regulatory system for raw milk producers/sellers. Those selling up to 50 quarts per day must meet a basic set of rules while those selling more than 50 quarts and up to 40 gallons per day have to follow additional rules. Also, this law allows farmers who are complying with the additional requirements to deliver milk to customers’ homes.
Also in 2008, RV helped to pass a bill that will allow Vermont farmers to begin growing Agricultural Hemp as soon as the federal government allows the growing of this non-drug version of the Cannabis plant (something every other industrialized nation in the world has done).
Beginning in 2008, the difficulty that many small livestock farmers faced around selling their meat directly to consumers prompted Rural Vermont to take up the issue of on-farm slaughter. Due to the nature of the relationship between State and Federal law, a farmer raising one cow a year is still unable to sell the meat from that animal even to a friend without having the cow slaughtered at a USDA-inspected facility. In 2009, Rural Vermont successfully advocated for the passage of a contractual on-farm slaughter law that took advantage of the “raising exemption” in the Federal Meat Inspection Act. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture refused to accept the bill’s validity for they interpreted the legislation as conflicting with federal regulations.
In 2009, Rural Vermont was instrumental in passing legislation that created the Farm to Plate Initiative. This initiative directed the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to create an economic development plan for Vermont agriculture and to raise and distribute funds to carry out the plan. The goal is to have 20% of the food purchased in Vermont be produced locally by 2020.
Also in 2009, RV helped to pass a bill allowing farmers who have dogs that help protect crops and livestock or herd livestock to register their dogs with the town clerk ($5 per dog) and let these working farm dogs run off leash and bark while carrying out their farm duties, regardless of local laws prohibiting these actions.
In 2010, Rural Vermont hosted Farmer-to-Farmer Workshops and Raw Dairy Processing Classes all over the state to educate farmers about the new raw milk law and to increase demand for value added raw dairy products.
In 2010, Rural Vermont began annually presenting the Raw Milk Report to the Vermont Legislature. The report is based on the annual Raw Milk Producers Survey Rural Vermont conducts to gather information from raw milk producers on sales and challenges with the current law. Read the most recent Raw Milk Report (2014) here.
In 2011, after receiving a cease and desist letter from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Rural Vermont was forced to postpone teaching raw dairy processing classes due to the Agency’s allegation that the classes violated Vermont law. The Agency’s argument centers around its interpretation of the 2009 Unpasteurized (Raw) Milk Law, in which they claim that it is illegal for farmers to knowingly sell raw milk to customers who plan to do anything with it other than drink it in its fluid form. During the 2011 legislative session, Rural Vermont successfully advocated to change the legislative language for raw milk from “fluid consumption” only to “personal consumption.” The popular raw dairy processing classes were also reinstated.
In 2012, Rural Vermont encouraged eight communities to pass local food sovereignty Town Meeting Day Resolutions. The resolutions declared the communities concerns around accessing traditional foods from their neighbors.
In 2013, Rural Vermont’s participation in the Vermont Right to Know GMO Coalition helped make Vermont the first state legislative body in the nation to approve a bill requiring that food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be labeled. The bill was passed by the Vermont House and current legislation is pending in the Vermont Senate.
In 2013, Rural Vermont’s continued hemp advocacy efforts helped pass the most progressive hemp legislation in the country. Vermont’s law permits Vermont farmers to grow hemp if the farmer registers and pays a $25 fee. In addition, Rural Vermont’s efforts produced a commitment from Senator Leahy to support national hemp efforts. Previously, Senator Sanders cosponsored Senate hemp legislation in 2012, and Congressman Welch in 2011.
Also during the 2013 legislative session, a Rural Vermont member’s bad experience with the current restrictive laws provided an opportunity to create more commonsense regulations around on-farm slaughter. After extensive testimony, language was added to the annual “Agricultural Housekeeping Bill” (H.515) that recognizes and legitimizes Vermont’s cultural tradition of on-farm slaughter as part of community-based food systems where neighbors feed neighbors.
For more detailed information about Rural Vermont’s work on the above issues, in addition to other campaigns we’re working on, please visit our issue page.