From the field
Updates by Organizer Graham Unangst-Rufenacht
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.