On May 12, the legislature passed the budget, marking the end of another busy legislative session. The budget now heads to Governor Scott for his signature (or veto). While we wait to see what happens next, read on for a recap of some major legislative wins, losses, and bills that didn't make it across the finish line this time around.
Organic Dairy Emergency Relief Included in Budget
We are thrilled to share that our request for emergency relief for organic dairy farmers in crisis was included in the final budget. The legislature appropriated $6.9 million for organic dairies, to be administered as grants through the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. These grants will be available to dairy farms still in operation that shipped or processed their own organic milk in 2022, in the amount of $5 per hundredweight of organic milk they sold or shipped last year. Passage of this appropriation represents substantial recognition from the legislature of the many economic, climate, and ecological benefits a healthy organic dairy sector provides to the state of Vermont.
One Time Investment Budgeted for Maple, Meat, and Produce Sectors
At the beginning of the session, the Governor's Commission on the Future of Agriculture recommended a historic, one-time investment of $10 million into the meat, maple, and produce sectors. As we shared last month, these sectors were chosen because the commission identified substantial growth potential, key barriers for producers in development and/or entry, and specific breakdowns in industry-wide infrastructure needs. Ultimately the appropriation was reduced to $2.3 million in the final budget. The final language specifies that the funds shall not be awarded to hydroponic operations and that no more than 25% of the total appropriation can be used to fund the maple industry.
Land Access and Opportunity Board (LAOB) Funding Included in Budget
This board was created by the General Assembly through Act 182 in 2022 to improve access to woodlands, farmland, and land and home ownership for Vermonters “historically marginalized or disadvantaged…who continue to face barriers to land and home ownership.” It is administered by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and thus far has only conducted research and a preliminary needs assessment. This session they requested a $1.2 million appropriation to hire staff, compensate board members, continue the needs assessment, and create two grant programs. LAOB's funding request was included in the final budget.
Small Farmer Diversification and Transition Program Incorporated Into the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative
Introduced by Rep. Heather Surprenant and Rep. Rodney Graham, this new grants program will provide a distinct funding stream for small farmers seeking to diversify their businesses or transition to new enterprises that improve their operation's viability. Once this bill passed from the House Agriculture, Food Resilience, and Forestry Committee to the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Senate committee felt strongly that instead of establishing it as a standalone program, it should be absorbed into the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative appropriation and administered by them going forward. Although the House committee had expressed concerns that Working Lands' complicated granting process would pose accessibility issues for the small farms this new program seeks to aid, the Senate committee ultimately decided that it would be too difficult to administer it without the support of a well-established program like Working Lands. To address accessibility issues, the funds will only be distributed to small farms as defined by the legislature and kept separate from the rest of the Working Lands funds. The final appropriation amount was reduced from $500,000 to $150,000 in the final budget. Grants of up to $15,000 will be administered through this program to support small farmers in diversifying their operation, transitioning to a different type of farming, processing farm products, or developing an accessory on-farm business. We're glad to see this program established and will be advocating for additional funding for it in the future
Historic Childcare Bill Passed
In what is widely expected to be a game-changing investment for families with young children in Vermont, the legislature passed a massive ($125 million) childcare bill this session. The bill expands access to childcare subsidies for families and improves compensation and professional training for early childhood educators. NOFA-VT is thrilled to see the state committing to this investment to make childcare centers more affordable for families, and careers in early childhood education more sustainable - both factors that currently disadvantage those who depend on and those who provide child care. At the same time, we are continuing to work with partners (including child care advocates) to ensure that our child care policies fully support the particular needs of the farming community, for whom child care centers are not the only solution. The childcare bill now awaits Governor Scott's signature (or veto) and was among the many bills about which he expressed concern throughout the session.
Vermont Leads the Way on Universal School Meals
We are also thrilled to share that the Universal School Meals bill passed and is headed to the Governor's desk. The passage of this bill is a huge victory, making school breakfast and lunch available at no cost to students attending Vermont schools, regardless of income. While Universal School Meals is on the list of bills about which Governor Scott has expressed concerns, we expect the legislature will have the votes to override in the case of a veto.
At the federal level, Vermont is also leading the charge on universal school meals. On May 11, Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act, which would provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student from preschool through high school, eliminate school meal debt, and incentivize local food procurement.
Miscellaneous Cannabis Bill Passed
H.270 is a miscellaneous cannabis bill that was amended, through the advocacy of our partners in the Vermont Cannabis Equity Coalition (VCEC) to expand key agricultural exemptions/protections to outdoor cannabis cultivators. While cannabis cultivation is still not classified as "farming" under Vermont law, outdoor growers will now be exempt from Act 250, receive protections under Vermont's right to farm law, and avoid regulation at the local level under certain municipal bylaws. The final bill as passed also directs the legislature to study the communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition nationally and in Vermont, with the goal of reinvesting tax revenues from cannabis sales back into those communities.
Bill Passes Supporting Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection
H.126 sets a goal of conserving 30% of the land in the state by 2030 and 50% by 2050 and lays out the State of Vermont's vision "to maintain an ecologically functional landscape that sustains biodiversity, maintains landscape connectivity, supports watershed health, promotes climate resilience, supports working farms and forests, provides opportunities for recreation and appreciation of the natural world, and supports the historic settlement pattern of compact villages surrounded by rural lands and natural areas." This bill passed the House and Senate and now awaits a signature (or veto) from the Governor.
Right to Repair Tabled for Next Session With Broad Support
H.81 would improve access to affordable, timely repairs of agriculture and forestry equipment by requiring original equipment manufacturers to make parts, tools, and software available to owners and independent repair providers. NOFA-VT sees this bill as an important step in pushing back against corporate consolidation and anti-competitive practices being used across many industries. H.81 passed the House this session in a near-unanimous vote (yeas - 137, nays - 2). While there wasn't enough time for it to make it through the full legislature this year, we expect it will be taken back up by the Senate in 2024.
Right to Farm Bill Update Tabled for Next Session
The Senate Agriculture Committee spent quite a bit of this session deliberating potential updates to Vermont's existing right to farm law, which is essentially aimed at protecting farmers from nuisance lawsuits. The most recent draft would simply update the current right to farm law with the addition of a mediation requirement. However, in their last discussion of the bill, committee members once again reopened the idea of returning to the previous draft, which laid out a much more robust change of the law. Concerns still remain about the Senate Judiciary Committee's willingness to update this law, and therefore it was tabled throughout the last three weeks of the session and has not been passed out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture.
Accessory On-Farm Businesses Bill Tabled for Next Session
Introduced into the House Agriculture, Food Resilience and Forestry Committee, H.128 seeks to eliminate certain barriers imposed by Act 250 to accessory on-farm businesses and forestry operations, while also imposing mitigation requirements for electrical facilities located on prime agricultural soils. The goal of this bill is to exempt certain agriculture and forestry businesses (e.g. sawmills, farm stores, etc.) from Act 250 permitting, improving their viability by easing the development of necessary parts of their operations that are not already exempt. This bill was only discussed in two instances at the end of the session and received limited testimony. No action was taken on it, and it was tabled until next year.
Farmworker Housing Conversation Continues
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board commissioned a needs assessment of farmworker housing throughout the state, with the goal being to gather data, identify issues and opportunities, and estimate the scale, cost, and best approach to address the need. They presented this needs assessment to the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resilience and Forestry, with no funding or appropriation request as of yet. The committee expressed a desire to reopen this conversation during the next legislative session, as the needs assessment revealed a clear and essential need for the creation of new farmworker housing and the repair of existing farmworker housing.