1.19.2018 – The Rural Enterprise Development Bill – H.663

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee spent time this week introducing and working on H.663, a Rural Enterprise Development Bill. We worked on a similar bill last year but decided to make some changes and introduce a new version. The goal is to make agricultural businesses more viable and able to withstand the challenges faced by some of our agricultural sectors.

Our dairy industry is struggling with low milk prices. Even our organic producers who were being paid more for their milk have seen prices drop. In fact, there has been a drop across all farming sectors and this causes us concern.

Our committee will be attending the Vermont Farm Show on Feb 1 to get our yearly, in-depth update on the dairy situation and join our farming community for the annual Dairy Banquet – a long-standing tradition.

On top of low milk prices, our farmers are being asked to take on additional responsibilities including their share of the cleanup of the waters of our state. Most have expressed a strong willingness to participate but their financial situations limit the kind of contributions they might be able to make.

In the last decade, we have had conversations about the benefits of our working lands to the economy of the State of Vermont. Before we started work on the Working Lands Enterprise Bill in 2012, the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership Council under the auspices of the Vermont Council on Rural Development conducted a survey that indicated that “over 97% of Vermonters polled endorsed the value of the working landscape as key to our future.” To take a look at the document that laid the groundwork for our Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, “Investing in our Farm and Forest Future”, go to www.vtrural.org.

Our open pastures and wooded mountainsides contribute to the beauty that many visitors to our state come to experience. These are maintained by the people who work the land – our farmers and loggers. Incidentally, our wood products industry is taking a huge hit, as well, but that is a topic for another week. Suffice it to say that Vermont would look a lot different if it wasn’t for the hard-working people who work the land.

In order to help dairy, and other, farmers better weather the inherent challenges that climate change and global economic forces are throwing at them, and to actually benefit from the recent developments in value-added and direct-to-consumer agriculture, we would like to make it easier for farmers to diversify and add more revenue-generating activities to what they are currently doing. This, we believe, is potentially critical to long-term farm viability.

Many types of farming experience income challenges because of their seasonal nature. Vegetable, berry, and tree fruit growers could benefit from value-added processing to even out their income stream. Additionally, other farmers could benefit by using their neighboring farmers’ processing facilities.

One of the obstacles to this diversification is an inconsistency and variation across the state in municipal zoning. For example, municipal regulations can prohibit value-added processing, on-farm events, product tastings, farm stays and lodging, classes on the farm, and other forms of agritourism. Additionally, there is often confusion about what is or isn’t allowed under existing regulations, which can freeze the adoption of on-farm activities that are desirable to both farmers and the communities in which they live.

Our goal is to create a consistent baseline of permitted agriculture enterprise activities across the entire state rather than trying to change municipal zoning on a town by town basis. We want our agricultural operations to stay viable with open farmland that remains in production. At the same time, our bill grants municipalities the ability to provide input on mitigating impacts. We are not trying to take power away from towns; rather we are trying to provide clarity so that farmers who want to expand know what they can expect.

Our bill allows for three major areas of development including accessory on-farm businesses; educational, recreational, or social events; and private events, such as conferences and weddings.

An example of an accessory on-farm business would be a processing facility that turns raw products from the farm into value-added items, such as cheeses, jams and jellies, pickles, to name just a few. It would also allow those farmers to take product from neighboring farms to include in their processing or allow their neighbors to use the facility to make their own products. Issues such as traffic, parking, noise, lighting, screening, and signage could be dealt with by the town during a site-plan review.

There are a number of farmers who are now doing social events on their farms. Some of them started with Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick-ups. CSAs have become very popular but for folks who don’t know, you can buy a membership to a CSA at the beginning of the year. This helps the farmer with start-up money and guarantees the member a portion of vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat, etc., that they pick up every week. Pick-up night is frequently Friday and some farmers who produce meat decided to have a “burger night” at the same time. In some cases, these events have been so popular that they have expanded to more than one night a week, which is great for the farmer’s bottom line. Our bill would prevent a town from saying no to such an event but would let them weigh in if traffic, parking, noise, etc. was a problem.

The third category, private events, includes conferences and weddings. This was a sticking point last year with some of our witnesses and may prove problematic for them again. Folks are generally willing to go along with the first two instances mentioned above because there is a nexus to agriculture. I can see that a strong argument can be made for conferences, depending on the topic, having an agricultural nexus, as well. We may need to adjust the language because currently our bill stipulates that an event shall not be considered private if the attendees must pay in order to attend. Most conferences include a registration fee but I can see an agricultural conference fitting in nicely with our bill.

Weddings may be a heavier lift but we will continue to take testimony from stakeholders including farmers and representatives for town government and the environmental community. We will do our best to develop a bill that meets the needs of our farmers and other stakeholders in a collaborative, transparent way.