From the field
Updates by Organizer Graham Unangst-Rufenacht
Happy early Summer! The first month since the end of the legislative session has included a lot planning for the summer and fall at Rural Vermont; responding to questions, concerns, and challenges from farmers and community members; and meeting with groups to continue ongoing conversations, and begin some new ones.
In the very near term, we’re urging folks to take action on healthcare, and provide testimony at public hearings and during the public comment period on the proposed rate hikes (15.6% and 8.5% respectively) which Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Healthcare have proposed to the Green Mountain Care Board for approval.
We are also calling attention to the proposed “merger” of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and Dairy Farmers of America - urging members of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery to attend and provide feedback at the regional meetings being hosted by the Cooperative throughout July, and to vote at the meeting at the end of July.
In other news, I recently met with a number of other farmers, farming groups, conservation groups, and mediators in the Farm and Water Coalition - a group which will come together over the next few months in order to openly discuss (and hopefully resolve) some real and perceived conflicts between the farming community and environmental advocates, and to consider the relationship between farm viability and environmental health.
The VT Sustainable Jobs Fund pulled together almost 30 leaders of agricultural organizations from around the State for most of a day to work together to envision how we can work together to meet the converging crises in VT of an “economy which has failed farmers”, large amounts of farmland potentially transitioning out of production, climate change, and greater economic consolidation and concentration within the food system. There is increasingly a recognition that agricultural non-profits, Extension, the Agency of Ag. and others cannot continue to do what we have been doing and expect to see the radical change we need - for people and communities, for our local ecosystems and for the planet. The Farm to Plate Network will be doing ongoing work through its Working Groups to gather more ideas for moving forward - including the Farmland Access and Stewardship Working Group, which Rural Vermont Chairs.
From national research, and from the mouths of local farmers, we know that healthcare costs and access have a substantial impact on farm viability, and on personal, family, and community health and development. Healthcare ranked highest among issues people were concerned about on Rural Vermont’s survey in 2018, and other national surveys have demonstrated how it affects the farming community. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont is asking the Green Mtn. Care Board to approve a 15.6% rate hike this year, and MVP Health Care is asking for an 8.5% rate hike. The public hearing for Blue Cross Blue Shield is on July 22nd, the hearing for MVP is on July 23rd - both are at 8am in Room 11 at the Statehouse. There is a Rate Review Public Forum on July 23rd from 4:30 - 6:30pm in the Council Chambers / Memorial Room at City Hall.
Tell the Green Mountain Care Board what you think: how have - or how will - rate hikes affect you? Are they excessive or appropriate? How do the cost of premiums and deductibles affect you, your farm, your family and community? Are they affordable and do they provide adequate access to - and quality of - care? “My family has Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont health insurance, and this is how raising prices affects my family and farm….” Here’s a link to an online public comment form from the Health Care Advocates’ Office. Please be in touch with them with questions, or for more information about testifying or writing public comment: 1-800-917-7787.
The Board of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery is proposing that the Cooperative merge with Dairy Farmers of America - one of the largest dairy processors and sellers in the world. Dairy farmers and smaller Cooperatives are facing extreme financial challenges, and are faced with challenging decisions on how to move forward. Consolidation and concentration of the dairy industry and the greater food system has been ongoing for decades - and many policy makers, government bodies, and industry actors have deliberately orchestrated and supported this undermining and impoverishment of small farms and local food economies. St. Albans Cooperative Creamery will be hosting a number of regional meetings throughout VT over this month in order to get feedback from its members, and members will be able to vote on the merger at the end of July. If you are a member - we urge you to attend the meetings, share your voice, and vote for what you think will lead to the best future for your farm, family, community, and dairy farming more broadly. Here is a link to a recent VT Edition episode featuring the Chair of the St. Albans Coop Board Chair Harold Howrigan Jr., Jackie Folsom (former dairy farmer and Legislative Director of the VT Farm Bureau), and long-time Rural Vermont member and dairy farmer Julie Wolcott. Thanks to all of them and VT Edition for making the time to inform the general public about this very significant issue and decision.
The VT Agency of Agriculture conducted two required public hearings on the proposed Rules to implement the law governing Vermont’s state Hemp Program. Rural Vermont sent a representative to both meetings, provided testimony and submitted formal comments. Read Rural Vermont’s comments here.
The DRAFT Rules will now be edited by VAAFM, based on the comments they received. There will be no further public hearings but Rural Vermont intends to stay in close communication with VAAFM about the final version of the Rules. Once finalized, the Rules must be submitted first to the VT Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (LCAR) and then to the USDA. The VAAFM is working hard to get the final rules in place in time for this year’s hemp harvest.
Both public hearings (in Brandon and in Newport) were lightly attended, no doubt because both dates were ideal days for planting hemp after the relentlessly cool wet spring. Rural Vermont’s testimony and comments from producers and processors at the hearings generally focused on the following concerns:
More information is needed about how the VAAFM will be conducting the research that is mandated under the federal law. Especially as it is related to data the Agency will be collecting form farmers and processors. (It is likely there will be a “preamble” about this concern added at the beginning of the Rules.)
Objections were voiced by Rural Vermont an others to the requirement for public disclosure (including to law enforcement) of information included on Hemp Registration applications.
Rural Vermont strongly criticized the proposed restriction on participation in the Hemp Program by those who have a past drug-related felony conviction. The Agency has said that this is included in the rules to comply with federal provisions. Past and present Vermont hemp registrants that this situation applies to have the possibility of being grandfathered into the program moving forward. If you have a past drug-related felony and are interested in participating in Vermont’s burgeoning hemp industry, email email@example.com for more information.
Other comments focused primarily on the testing and record-keeping requirements
If you have questions about the Hemp Rules or any other aspect of Vermont’s Hemp Program please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The VAAFM also has many resources available on its website.
It’s been a busy couple weeks in the field. I’m recovering from my meniscus surgery and am ever so grateful to my friends and colleagues at Rural Vermont (from staff, to intern, to consultant, to Board members) who have all helped get me around VT these last couple weeks while i can’t drive. We’re a resilient little crew!
One of the opportunities I had over the past couple weeks was to catch up with Lisa Griffith and Jordan Treakle at the National Family Farm Coalition. We shared information about local, regional, and national work - from on-farm slaughter in VT to the Green New Deal - and affirmed our general alignment and shared vision for an equitable, just, and ecological agriculture. NFFC supported our attendance at the Northern Tier Dairy Summit - and we look forward to sharing the experiences we had at the Summit with them, and through their networks, bringing attention to the efforts happening in VT around dairy.
The last couple of weeks saw us participating in (and hosting) a number of events related to dairy farms, dairy farmers, and the dairy economy: Rural Vermont’s Faces of Dairy event in Enosburgh, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s 2 day Northern Tier Dairy Summit, and a meeting of agricultural stakeholders with the Dairy and Water Quality Collaborative working group. All of these events and meetings gave us a chance to talk with and hear from many different farmers and farming organizations in VT - as well people and organizations from other States and countries such as the Wisconsin Farmers Union. We participated in conversations about potential options available to folks in these communities, how to support this farming community in navigating these options, and how we can work collaboratively within and without the dairy sector to transform our farming in VT, and more broadly transform the commodity pricing and farming systems which don’t serve our farmers or communities. I look forward to continuing these conversations in VT and more broadly with our partners locally and nationally.
We also travelled to work on our educational and advocacy efforts. Mollie Wills and myself were invited to Terry Bradshaw’s Agricultural Policy course at UVM to discuss Rural Vermont, and the work we do for a class period. I also worked with David Howard (the Northeast Campaigns Director for the National Young Farmers’ Coalition), Maddie Monty (NOFA VT’s Policy Advisor), and the Vermont Young Farmers’ Coalition to offer a policy and advocacy training at the Intervale Center. At the latter event, I was excited to meet a number of young farmers, and folks working in the working lands and food systems more broadly who are all passionate about affecting change on a number of issues: from healthcare, to pesticides. We hope to continue to grow efforts like this; working around the State and in collaboration with different organizations. Next stop - April 25, Small Farm Advocacy Day in collaboration with NOFA VT!
We continued our meetings with the developing coalition of groups working towards strategically advancing State policy, and work at the local level, which will result in the reduction of the use of, and exposure to, these toxics over time. We’re currently supporting and working to advance H.205 which will significantly reduce the use of, and exposure to, neonicotinoid pesticides by limiting their use to licensed applicators, and some particular exempted uses. This bill is by no means comprehensive in relationship to achieving our long-term goals - but we see it as a significant step forward in many respects.
I’ve been working to bring together folks from the farming community and folks from the Paid Leave Coalition to discuss the paid leave bill, how it may affect the farming and working lands communities, and how it may be approached and / or reformed given these considerations. Catching up on reading bills! The Miscellaneous Ag Bill (H.525), the Agricultural Development Bill (S.160), the Taxation and Regulation of Cannabis Bill (S.54), and the New Mexico SoilHealth Bill. I am almost done reviewing all of these - after which we will submit comments and/or testimony. There is a lot contained in these VT bills - and the NM bill is an example of a bill related to soil health being advanced in another State which we are exploring.
We convened our Policy Committee in order to discuss the current bills we are working on and monitoring, and how to strategically mobilize stakeholder voices in relationship to them. We also discussed issues not directly at the Statehouse such as: payments for ecosystem services, soil health legislation in other States, and the “dairy crisis”.
The next couple weeks are quite full with legislative testimony on On-Farm Slaughter, meeting with the Human Rights Council, and many events and happenings: Rural Vermont’s Faces of Dairy event, the Northern Tier Dairy Summit, visiting Terry Bradshaw’s Agricultural Policy class at UVM, and meeting with the Vermont Dairy and Water Quality Collaborative.
The week of Town Meeting is a week off at the Statehouse; and given the sheer number of bills, the amount of activity at the Statehouse at the beginning of the biennium, and our most recent Small Farm Advocacy Day the week before, we also took a little bit of downtime.
During this week we caught up with one another, determining how to refine our legislative approach - and how to best utilize the different roles we have to achieve our goals at the Statehouse, and in the field. The week prior, we held our second Small Farm Advocacy Day of the biennium (come out to our next one on March 20!); and met with the Pesticide Coalition we have been convening to discuss legislation such as H. 205 currently in Committee. I spoke with Bob and Joan at Health Hero Farm about the work they’ve been doing with the ASPCA and other farms, all of whom are working on growing the understanding of, and support and markets for, products certified as “humane” under a few different certification programs. We hope to share more of their developing project through Rural Vermont in the future! We continued conversations with folks working on the Paid Leave bill, trying to determine how we can make sure that folks in the farming community - and beyond - are justly included. And we participated in our bi-monthly call with the National Healthy Soils Policy Network - during which we heard updates from around the country about how soil health is being approached via policy in different States. We also discussed how agriculture is being addressed in the Green New Deal, who is working to influence this, and how we may be able to contribute to this effort.
As the Legislature arrives back in the Statehouse this week - I am headed to surgery for my knee, and hope to be back soon! Wish me luck!
The past two weeks have been full, and we’ve been working within and outside the Statehouse on many issues.
The NOFA conference was last weekend, and this year it was particularly bitter-sweet as it was the first convened since the passing of Enid Wonnacott - NOFA’s long time director, and long time friend of Rural Vermont, and so many members of our communities. With a heavy heart full of gratitude - I attended some amazing workshops which speak to the legacy which Enid has gifted us. Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, brought the historical and contemporary experiences of farmers of the African diaspora and farmers of color to the conference - and brought the audience into a discussion of how we are individually and collectively engaging with these realities. A panel of First Nations folks - including members of the Nulhegan-Coosuk Abenaki Tribe, Oneida Turtle Clan, Lakota Standing Rock Band, and Eastern Band Cherokee Wofl Clan - presented on their experiences, and the historical experiences, of their communities and how farmers and land managers may engage more - and more appropriately - with First Nations communities where they live. Rural Vermont also facilitated a workshop on Policy and Food Traditions.
We continue to be a lead organization facilitating the developing Pesticides Coalition, which is currently focusing on the development of a long term and strategic campaign to reduce the use of, and exposure to, toxic pesticides in VT.
We continue to sit on the Steering Committee of the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition which met over the past two weeks. This group operates a listserve which shares a number of articles, studies, conversations, and more about soil health. Please consider joining the listserve, and attending one of the upcoming series of panels, community dinners, and discussions: “The Soil Series: Grassroots for the Climate Emergency”. These events are a collaboration between BALE and the VHSC, and will take place on 6 Wednesday nights in February, March, and April in Randolph at the Bethany Church.
As the conversation around paying farmers and land managers for ecosystem services and other yields they provide has continued - i’ve been having conversations with different people who are and / or have been involved in studying (or implementing) models for this in other places around the world; as well as people involved in the conversation in VT right now.
In my role as Chair of the Farmland Access and Stewardship Working Group at Farm to Plate, we convened a meeting last week at the Vermont Law School focused on exploring the processes for, and questions around, siting solar on ag land in Vermont. We had a number of presenters discussing different topics - from how Regional Planning Commissions and towns are making and implementing rules, to grazing management under panels. We also heard from - and provided some feedback to - land access organizations like Vermont Land Trust, VHCB, and Land for Good around how they’re adapting to a changing farming and economic landscape.
After a hiatus, the Human Rights Council also convened this past week; providing an opportunity for a diversity of groups from different sectors (Green Mountain Self Advocates, Migrant Justice, 350 VT, Vermonter Center for Independent Living, Peace and Justice Center, and more) to talk with one another about the issues we’re working on, how we can collaborate, and where we may want to work to improve what’s currently on the table.
I met with Ashley from the Main Street Alliance to learn more about the Paid Leave bill which is going through the legislature. During our survey process this Fall, healthcare was an issue prioritized by respondents. I asked Ashley questions about how the agricultural and small business community may be affected by this bill, we discussed some of the unique circumstances of farmers, and how Rural Vermont and others working with these communities may be able to help inform bills going forward to make sure they affect and include everyone equitably."
Lastly, I headed to Burlington to represent Rural Vermont at a meeting with Sen. Sanders’ staff and at a rally afterwards. A number of organizations - led by Plainfield Community Action, Migrant Justice, and others - asked for the Senator’s support and participation in calling for an end to the United States Border Patrol’s plans to operate immigration checkpoints in the interior of Vermont; in making people aware of, and shutting down, checkpoints which are put up; and in calling for the release of people detained by ICE and / or Border Patrol. The Senator has worked for the release of detainees in the past, and does not support internal checkpoints; but the group would like to see him use the full extent of his power not only as a Senator, but as a fellow human, to join in marches and other actions in VT directly challenging the use of violence and detention against member of our communities.
That’s all for now folks! From the Field,
We had our first Small Farm Advocacy day of the season - an introduction to the VT policy process and Statehouse, and some of the issues Rural Vermont is focusing on this session. Come out for our next Small Farm Advocacy Day on February 28th!
Soon after that, we had a full day retreat for Board and Staff members - the first Board Meeting with many of our much appreciated new Board members! We got updates from all of our Board Committees, worked on plans for the upcoming year, filled Board offices and committees, and got a little time to enjoy conversation and learn more about one another.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve met with other groups interested in reducing the use and impact of pesticides and herbicides in VT, and continued working on coalition development; met with a group of regional organizations working on soils policy, and assessing the impact of current and future land management practices in the northeast; began to follow up with members of the “Future of Agriculture” white paper group to discuss the paper, payment for ecosystem services, and contribute our suggestions; met with Mark Hughes, Executive Director of Justice For All, to discuss reparations and criminal justice reform associated with the proposed Taxation and Regulation of Marijuana bill, as well as land access and technical assistance for people of color and other historically and currently marginalized people in VT in general; provided testimony to Sen. Judiciary with respect to equity, justice, and access in S.54, the Taxation and Regulation of Marijuana bill; monitored progress on how Act 250 may be revised; followed up with members who called about issues they’re facing on their farms; and continued to touch base and stay in touch with other agricultural organizations working in policy in VT.
Lastly, in my role through Rural Vermont as the Chair of the Farmland Access and Stewardship Working Group at Farm to Plate, I’m convening a meeting of the working group this Friday from 1-4pm at VT Law School in which there will be a number of people presenting on different aspects of solar siting on ag land in Vermont, as well as some discussion of how Farmland Access Groups are adapting to a changing agricultural and economic world.
The first weeks of the legislative session have seen some important agricultural presentations, discussions, and proposals. There are diverse, and increasingly unified, efforts among farmers and farming groups including Rural Vermont, UVM Extension, NOFA-VT, the Farm Vermont Bureau, the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition, Farm to Plate, Vermont Grass Farmers and others to make our voices heard and cultivate agricultural and ecological literacy within and outside of the statehouse; to communicate the real economic challenges and hardships of farming, and the real opportunities to leverage agriculture, forestry, policy, and the greater working lands to grow healthy soil, develop a sustainable economy, improve water quality, right inequities, and help to mitigate and adapt to climate change (among other things).
There is a renewed emphasis on the dramatic turn-over in agricultural land coming as the farming population ages and economic challenges force more farmers out - and reciprocally, more emphasis on the absolute need for farming to be viable, and that part of that must include farmers being paid for the ecosystem and public services their land and animal management is yielding. We'll do our best to keep you updated on how conversations, legislation, and on-the-ground work intersect and progress! If you have questions, please contact Graham.