2.6.2015 – The Gilfeather Turnip and Water Quality

Last week I wrote about bills, which are introduced that may seem frivolous in nature or a waste of time. There are several reasons why a legislator might introduce legislation but one of the most edifying for me is when it is a learning experience for children. The apple pie became the State Pie because schoolchildren asked for it. They came to the State House all dressed up in their Sunday best, lobbied the legislators, and handed out slices of delicious homemade apple pie. In fact, if you look at the legislation enacted on May 10, 1999, you will see that Sec. 2 has to do with the serving of apple pie and states “When serving apple pie in Vermont, a “good faith” effort shall be made to meet one or more of the following conditions: (a) with a glass of cold milk, (b) with a slice of cheddar cheese weighing a minimum of 1/2 ounce, (c) with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream.”

A similar situation exists this year in an attempt to make the Gilfeather turnip the State Vegetable. There are those who think kale should have the honor because of the popularity of the “Eat More Kale” bumper stickers and t-shirts but, if time allows, the House Agriculture and Forest Products (HAFP) Committee will take testimony on the Gilfeather turnip – an heirloom variety that originated in Vermont. It is my understanding that the children of Wardsboro will be getting involved and learning about the legislative process. Hopefully, they will be able to come to the State House to testify in front of the HAFP Committee.

If you haven’t heard of the Gilfeather turnip, you just need to talk to someone who knows or go to the internet. The famous turnip was bred and grown in the late 1800s and early 1900s by John Gilfeather, who carefully guarded his creation taking precautions so that no one else could grow them. The Gilfeather turnip is a cross between a rutabaga, which tends to be round with yellow colored flesh, and a true turnip. Gilfeathers have delightfully mild flavored, white flesh that can be very oddly shaped at maturity. John Gilfeather was lucky in that these genetic crosses occur very rarely when two different species are grown closely together and flower at the same time. While he cut the tops and bottoms off the turnips he sold so that no one else could propagate them, he may have given some seeds away because they did make into the hands of others.

The Gilfeather turnip has special meaning in our corner of Vermont. Many of the seeds are grown locally by Paul and Wendy Dutton of Brookline, who also grow the root vegetable to sell at their farmstores. Every year at the end of October, there is a wonderful Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro with contests, turnip tastings, a cookbook, and even a special song written for the tasty tuber!

On another subject, there is a lot of work being done on H.35, an act relating to improving the quality of State waters. The House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee, chaired by Westminster’s own, Rep. David Deen, has been taking testimony on the bill for several weeks. Since many of the sections of the bill concern agriculture, the HAFP Committee is reviewing it as well.

One of the big challenges will be how to raise the revenue to clean up our waterways, in particular, Lake Champlain. It is estimated by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) that they will need seven new positions to accomplish the work that needs to be done. The estimated cost for these positions plus money for grants to help farmers implement “clean up” strategies is $1.2 million. The original suggestion made by the AAFM was a $30 per ton fee on fertilizer. This was disliked by farmers because it would hit the large and medium farms the most. While it might sound reasonable at first blush, these are the very farms that have expensive Nutrient Management Plans that dictate the amount of nutrients to be used and that are permitted by the State.

As the HAFP Committee has discussed alternatives to the fertilizer fee, we have established several guidelines against which to test all proposals including fairness, reliability, sustainability, nexus to the problem, and ease of administration. While many suggestions have been made, there are only a handful that have met the test and made it through the process. When we are done, we will have a prioritized list of recommendations to make to the House Ways and Means Committee, which will make the final decision.

At the same time, we are also looking for revenue to fully fund the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, stipends and grants for the State agricultural fairs, and the Farm to School program all of which have been drastically cut or zeroed out. We are hopeful that we will be able to find a funding source that will cover the agricultural part of the Water Quality Bill as well as these three vital agricultural endeavors.