Environmental advocates say farmers who receive public subsidies would be shielded from public oversight under a bill that has the support of the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.The legislation, H.495, would exempt farmers’ nutrient management plans from disclosure to the public. The bill has passed both houses of the Legislature, and a conference committee has been assigned to reconcile the versions.
A nutrient management plan is a document describing how a farmer will prevent or reduce pollution going into Vermont waterways.
Decades of pollution from Vermont farms have left Lake Champlain blooming with toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, every summer. Vermont is expected to have to spend as much as $60 million each year for the next 20 years to address the problem.
Much of that money will go to farmers, who say they can’t afford to operate without either polluting or receiving public financial aid.
Critics of the exemption say it’s poor practice to give away public money without ensuring public oversight. The Agency of Agriculture’s “hands-free” approach toward farmers that hasn’t worked in the past, environmental advocates say.
“This is why, for years, environmental advocates have been uncomfortable with the Agency of Agriculture’s regulation of farms,” said Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Any individual or business that must for some purpose cause harm to Vermont’s natural resources must get a permit, Groveman said.Usually those permits come from the Agency of Natural Resources, and the applications are public record, he said.
Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts says removing information from public scrutiny in the case of farms would actually benefit the environment.
Tebbetts said his agency collaborated with legislators to draft H.495 and that he supports it as currently written.
If the nutrient management plans aren’t available to the public, Tebbetts said, “farmers will be willing to give us more detailed information.”
The plans are currently public information, he said, and they’re required of Vermont’s largest farms. The documents contain very detailed information, he said, “and at times some of [the farmers] have been reluctant to share details.”
But he said farmers are not currently omitting facts or distorting information on their nutrient management plans. Farmers are, however, “hesitant to give [the plans] to us,” Tebbetts said.
“I think they would like some comfort that [the plans would] not be used against them in some way outside the regulatory process,” Tebbetts said.
But Groveman argues Vermonters ought to be able to see how their money is being used to benefit Lake Champlain, and it’s not the agency’s place to prevent that.