4.6.2018 – Rural Economic Development and Nutrient Management Plans

For the last two weeks this column has been devoted to the challenges faced by the people who work on our working landscape – our farmers and loggers/foresters. I have been very appreciative of the people who have contacted me and weighed in with comments and suggestions. My goal has been to raise consciousness about the importance of our working

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee is currently working on a Senate bill, S.276, that is focused on rural economic development. It includes a number of provisions that are meant to provide incentives for development in rural areas. The bill has had a very difficult process in that it passed the Senate Agriculture Committee with many sections. It then went to the Senate Natural Resources and Finance committees where all but five or six of the sections were removed. Senate Agriculture then went on to add most of the sections that had been removed onto our Ag Housekeeping Bill, H.904, which they sent to Senate Natural Resources in order to give them time to reconsider the provisions that had been removed.

It is now up to us to consider all of the original provisions, consult with other House committees that might have an interest in the bill, and get something to the Floor of the House with the hope of enacting something that will help our rural areas become more successful.

Last year, the Vermont Legislature created the Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI) housed within the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). Its mission is “to promote and facilitate community economic development in the small towns and rural areas of the state and increase access to federal and other funding for such efforts.” Staff, working for the VHCB Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program, have helped support six projects by identifying grant funding opportunities and offering technical assistance with the preparation of grant applications.

REDI projects are located in Hardwick, Pownal, Cambridge, Charlotte, and Windsor/Windham counties. REDI supported a grant application for the Windham County Solid Waste Management District in Brattleboro and surrounding towns to help acquire equipment to expand composting infrastructure to meet Act 148 requirements. S.276 amends the law to add business types to the mission of REDI and this is one of the sections that made it through the process in the Senate.

S.276 also establishes the Outdoor Recreation-Friendly Community Program, which would “provide incentives for communities to leverage outdoor recreation assets to foster economic growth.” An example of a project developed under this section would be recreational trails. The bill lays out the selection criteria and incentives available.

I have written about hemp cultivation in the last few weeks and this, too, is a part of S.276 that made it through the entire Senate process. The growing of hemp has been legal in Vermont since 2013, though it is not legal on the federal level. The original provisions in the bill required that people register with the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) and pay a $25 permit fee.

One of the difficulties for farmers who want to grow hemp is obtaining seed. S.276 would alleviate that problem by bringing Vermont statute into conformance with the 2014 federal Farm Bill so sourcing seed would become a lot easier. We also understand that there will be legislation on the federal level sponsored by none other than Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky that would make hemp cultivation legal. Currently, hemp is on the controlled substances list and McConnell’s legislation would remove it from that list.

In Kentucky, as the demand for tobacco decreases due to health concerns, hemp might well replace it. Similarly, hemp could provide a good crop for farmers looking to build organic matter in their soil. It can also be used in a myriad of products including clothing, paper, rope, animal feed, biofuels, and building supplies but as I’ve mentioned in other columns the up and coming product is cannabidiol, or CBD, an extract of hemp, which appears to have healing properties.

We will continue our work on S.276 this coming week with the hopes of voting it out of committee in the next week or two.

This week, we had a briefing on the “report card” from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding our progress on water quality. The very good news is that out of 28 categories, we have completed 25 satisfactorily. Of the three that are incomplete, only one pertains in part to agriculture and that is the establishment of a long-term revenue source to support water quality improvements via the Clean Water Fund.

As we have discussed water quality it has become apparent that there is a complication with Nutrient Management Plans (NMP). NMPs are required for all of our large farms and consist of binders that are in some cases six to eight inches thick. They contain what is in large part the business plan for a farm – proprietary information about where their fields are and what nutrients are being applied to them.

When these plans are submitted to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) they are considered confidential. When they come into the possession of the AAFM, they are subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests – in other words they become public. These are business plan documents that sometimes cost farmers as much as $15,000 – $20,000. Imagine asking other businesses and corporations to make their business plans public!

As Medium Farm Operations become permitted and Small Farm Operations become certified they will need to have NMPs done for their farms. There is concern on the parts of some farmers that their proprietary information will become public.

There is a way to alleviate the problem and that is to leave the NMP at the farm and not submit it to the AAFM. However, this would require AAFM employees to make physical visits to a farm every time they need to check the plans, which is not practical given the staff power at AAFM. A better solution would be to allow the NMPs to remain confidential and allow for the release of aggregated information. This would give lay people a much better idea of what was going on and what progress was being made over time. Hopefully, we will be able to reach some kind of resolution for this problem.

On a lighter note, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee held the first annual Maple Sugar Tasting Contest. Two of our committee members and one senator make maple sugar candy and we decided to have a contest with a one dollar entry fee, all of the proceeds to go to the Vermont Foodbank. As of this writing I can’t release the winner’s name but we raised $139.11 for the Foodbank and had a good time in the bargain!