2.9.2018 – The Rural Enterprise Development Bill Moves to the Senate

During my time at the State House, I have had the chance to work on and help bring to fruition several pieces of agriculturally-related legislation of which I am most proud. These include the Farm to School Program (F2S), the Farm to Plate Initiative (F2P), the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEI), and the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering (GE). F2S, F2P and the WLEI have all been unqualified successes. F2S and F2P have brought better nutrition to many Vermonters and improved the bottom line for farmers. After it appeared that the GE Labeling legislation would withstand a court challenge, it was pre-empted by action on the federal level, but has had the effect of starting a conversation and actually causing many products to be labeled.

In the last few weeks, I have written about the plight of conventional dairy farmers and the need for a way for farmers, in general, to augment their incomes. Farmers are often ingenious and imaginative when it comes to fixing things and making ends meet. Some of our work this year will, hopefully, help facilitate that creativity. To that end, the House Agriculture and Forestry committee has been working on H.663, an act relating to municipal and use regulation of accessory on-farm businesses.

H.663, the Rural Enterprise Development Bill, has been in the making for several years. It began when the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM), in response to a couple of pieces of legislation, decided to explore the changing nature of agriculture and how to best support Vermont’s agricultural industry and innovation. This effort included a survey in 2014 and stakeholder meetings, one of which I attended in Woodstock, that resulted in a 2015 report that included suggested approaches to support the agricultural industry. One suggestion was a change to state statute in order to create a statewide land use category for on-farm businesses. That suggestion is codified in H.663.

So what problem are we trying to solve? When we attended the Dairy Update at the Farm Show, the news was not good. Milk prices, over which we have little or no control, are projected to go down even more. Organic buyers aren’t taking on any new producers until 2019 and our new, vibrant local farms frequently require that someone work off the farm to make ends meet.

Many farmers have begun making value-added products to increase their income but there is no consistency in municipalities across the state in terms of what’s allowed and what isn’t. Some towns have instituted Integrated Agricultural Use policy that addresses the issue well, but those towns are generally larger with well-organized zoning and planning. There are also towns with no zoning where virtually anything is allowed. This lack of consistency leads to a lot of confusion so it was felt that we should create a baseline for what’s allowed regarding on-farm accessory businesses.

What the bill says is that towns can’t say no to on-farm accessory businesses providing certain criteria are met. The bill also allow towns to do a site plan review if there are concerns with issues such as parking, traffic, noise, screening, and light, to name a few.

There are two categories of activity included in our Rural Enterprise Development Bill. The bill states “no bylaw shall have the effect of prohibiting an accessory on-farm business at the same location as a farm.” It then goes on the define “accessory on-farm business” as “activity that is accessory to a farm and comprises one of both of the following: (I) The storage, preparation, processing, and sale of qualifying products, provided that more than 50 percent of the total annual sales are from qualifying products that are principally produced on the farm at which the business is located. (II) Educational, recreational, or social events that feature agricultural practices or qualifying products, or both. Such events may include tours of the farm, tastings and meals featuring qualifying products, and classes or exhibits in the preparation, processing, or harvesting of qualifying products.”

A practical example of this is a farm that starts out with a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) pickup night. Farms sell CSA memberships at the beginning of the growing season to help with startup costs. They then provide their products, usually on a weekly basis, to their customers either through delivery or by pickup by the customers at the farm. This has been a very successful model that benefits farmer and customer alike. In some cases, CSA pickup night turns into a social event and the farmer who may also be raising beef cattle decides to do a “burger night”. A classic example of this is Bread and Butter Farm in Shelburne, whose secret to success also involves an open, close, and friendly relationship with its neighbors. Shelburne happens to be one of those towns with progressive zoning and an integrated agricultural use provision.

After significant testimony from a diverse group of witnesses and collaboration with the House Commerce and Economic Development and Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife Committees, we decided to eliminate one element in the original bill that did not have a direct nexus to agriculture – private events such as weddings and conferences where the farmer leases out land to an individual who is then responsible for the event. This is not to say that weddings can’t be held on farms, it just means that they have to take another approach to making it happen.

The great news for us is that it passed the House on a unanimous voice vote and is now on its way to the Senate.

In the next few weeks, we will be looking at regenerative agriculture, pollinator protection, and the inspection of amusement rides at our agricultural fairs and field days. It is hard to believe but we have twelve legislative days before crossover with lots to do. Crossover is the day by which all policy bills must by voted out of committee and on to a money committee or the Floor of the House in order to be considered by the other body without a special allowance. This year, crossover is March 2, just before Town Meeting week when we will be at home visiting with our constituents at our various Town Meetings – something I always look forward to.