We're in the statehouse every week tracking issues that impact our food system. Read on for our latest updates, which were written by Maddie Kempner, NOFA-VT policy director and Emma Bliss, NOFA-VT's legislative intern for the 2023 session.
Organic Dairy Emergency Relief Update
The Senate Agriculture Committee has continued taking testimony from farmers, feed dealers, advocates, and the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets on the request for emergency relief for organic dairies. A newly drafted bill would provide farmers with a payment of $5 for every hundred pounds of organic milk they produced in 2022. NOFA-VT continues to track this process closely to ensure that relief is provided as quickly and easily as possible to our organic dairies.
At the federal level, as negotiations begin on the next farm bill, NOFA-VT is working with allies and meeting with our congressional delegation to ensure that organic dairies do not face this kind of economic freefall in the future. Along with our allies at the Organic Farmers Association, we have been working with organic producer associations from around the country to develop a list of organic dairy recommendations for the farm bill that include improving data collection, developing an effective safety net, and investing in regional processing infrastructure.
NOFA-VT's Recent Testimony on the Right to Repair
The House Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry Committee has been taking testimony on H.81, an act related to fair repair of agriculture and forestry equipment. The bill aims to ensure accessible, timely, and affordable repairs of agricultural and forestry equipment by requiring that original equipment manufacturers make necessary parts, tools, and documentation available to farmers, loggers, and/or independent repair shops on fair and reasonable terms. On Tuesday, March 21st, NOFA-VT testified in support of the bill. We view this bill as protecting farmers' and loggers' ability to repair their own equipment, facilitating a more competitive market for farm and forestry equipment service, and pushing back against the corporate concentration that is already harming our farmers and the broader working lands economy. Read the latest coverage in VTDigger.
Farmers: Send us your thoughts on the right to repair!
NOFA-VT is seeking input from farmers in our community about your experience repairing agricultural equipment. Do you have reliable and affordable access to local repair services, and/or access to manuals, diagnostic tools, parts, and firmware you need to repair equipment yourself? Do you work directly with local dealers for your parts and equipment service needs, and if so, what is your experience with the timeliness, distance, and affordability of working with the dealer? Please share your experiences by emailing Maddie Kempner, NOFA-VT policy director at [email protected].
Future of Agriculture Commission Proposes Historic Investment in Meat, Produce, and Maple Sectors
Proposed by the Future of Agriculture Commission and supported by the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, the legislature is considering a one-time appropriation of $10M for producers and processors in the maple, meat, and produce sectors. Additionally, the Administration has proposed a $3M one-time appropriation and a $1M base (annual, ongoing) investment into the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.
While the money proposed for Working Lands would be disbursed using the regular grantmaking process defined by that program, the $10M appropriation will create a new grant program designed to fund industry changing investments in needed infrastructure for the maple, produce and meat sectors. As the commission stated, the idea is to “fund projects that... look forward to building the Agricultural economy of tomorrow.”
If included in the state's FY24 budget, the money will be granted to small and mid size producers and processors, and be evenly split between the three sectors. 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. Awards would be between $10,000-$100,000 and would be granted to producers or processors who demonstrate that funds will significantly impact their economic viability.
House Committee Unanimously Passes Small Farm Diversification and Transition Bill
This bill was just unanimously passed by the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry. Its aim is to provide a funding stream for small farmers to diversify their operations towards new enterprises, or for farmers who need/want to transition away from production sectors that no longer meet their business viability needs. It will specifically be available to farmers who make 50% or less of their gross income from their operation, with no acreage criteria– these funds can be used to develop an Accessory On Farm Businesses or to transition from one farming activity to another (such as dairy to vegetable production or vegetable production to hemp) or diversity an operation to include a new product that the applicant can prove has market viability. The proposed appropriation is $500,000, and will be included in the FY24 budget– any left over funds from this fiscal year will roll over into FY25.
Universal School Meals Moves to the Senate
NOFA-VT has been tracking and testifying on H.165, the Universal School Meals bill, which would permanently fund free breakfast and lunch for all Vermont students. We are thrilled to share that the bill passed the House last week, and will now move to the Senate! Universal School Meals have been provided across the country through federal waivers since 2020, and this action in the legislature brings us one step closer to making this program permanent in Vermont.
Other Bills We're Tracking
Agriculture and Nutrition (H. 274)
Introduced to the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry by Representative Henry Pearl, this bill is in the early stages of discussion and drafting. The goal is to create a curriculum that can be integrated into schools statewide, that reconnects children ages K-12 with agricultural activities and practices and educates them on nutrition through healthy food consumption. As Rep. Pearl noted, as our landscape has become less rural, children are increasingly less exposed to farming and fresh food, a disconnect that can have cascading impacts on their health and the development of future generations of farmers. With a generally favorable initial response, the House committee will continue to form this bill– it is yet to be determined whether it will be ready to be voted on before the end of the session; given its current unformed state it is more likely to reappear next session.
Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection (H. 126)
Recently taken up by the House Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry Committee, and administered by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), this bill is drafted around setting a goal of conserving 30% of land in the state by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Phase one of this bill would catalog all conserved land in Vermont to assess the different categories of conservation, the programs that administer them, and private and public conservation measures. The goal is to then conserve an additional 10% of land, pulling from multiple, as yet undetermined, land bases. This bill was met with quite a bit of resistance in committee, with members expressing concerns that it was too vague in its explanation of where this 10% of newly conserved land would be pulled from; they felt it might unfairly impact the agricultural and forestry sector, making them bear the burden of further land restrictions. Committee members also felt it was strategically questionable to take valuable working lands out of economically beneficial use, when the state is more focused on stimulating a vibrant agricultural sector and creating and enforcing ethical land management. Due to this feedback, the bill was updated to make clear that it will “continue to conserve and protect Vermont’s Agricultural land, working forests,” and “enhance and further Vermont's investments and commitment to working lands, rural landowners and conservation mission.” However, the committee still felt they would need to consult more closely with the agriculture and forestry sector to assess if passage of this bill would be too burdensome to the industry. It is unlikely that this bill will be passed this session.
Right to Farm (S.268)
Currently in the final drafting stages in the Senate Agriculture Committee, this bill would replace Vermont's current Right to Farm bill, which has not been updated for 25 years. While the specific provisions and protections vary greatly between states, Right to Farm laws are generally designed to protect farmers against nuisance lawsuits initiated by neighbors, where a neighbor asserts that one or more activities taking place on the farm impacts that neighbor's use and enjoyment of their own property. Nuisance suits can be brought based on issues related to odor or noise, for example, or (as in a high profile 2022 Addison County case) water pollution from the mismanagement of nutrients.
If passed, this bill would increase the barriers for anyone seeking to bring a nuisance suit against a farmer in Vermont. As it is currently drafted, the only pathway to legal action for suit against a farm would be to prove that they are not adhering to generally accepted agricultural practices, which the bill defines as permitting requirements and the Required Agricultural Practices, industry customs, and pesticide regulations; this violation must be confirmed by an Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets representative. A recent unique addition to the bill is the requirement for mediation between conflicting parties over the course of one year – if the conflict cannot be resolved in this way and it is determined that generally accepted practices were not being followed, the individual party may take legal action. So far the bill has not passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, where all but one member have said they plan to support its passage.