3.1.2019 – Agricultural Water Quality and Housekeeping Bills and Town Meeting

It’s hard to believe that Town Meeting is here already. Perhaps, it is because the Session started relatively late, but time has flown, and we are looking crossover in the eye. As a result, committees are doing their best to get as much out of committee as possible.

Last week, I wrote about H.205, which is a bill that would ban neonicotinoid pesticides for outdoor household use. This week, House Agriculture and Forestry continued to take testimony with the hopes of passing something before the crossover deadline, which is Friday, March 15th this year. Crossover is the day by which policy bills must be out of their committees of jurisdiction and on to the Floor or to a money committee in order to be taken up by the other body. It is possible to ask for an exemption from the crossover deadline but if it is a bill that the other side isn’t crazy about, it probably won’t be granted.

Our committee is also working on an Agricultural Water Quality Bill that would clarify certain areas of statute and, hopefully, make things clearer for farmers regarding the need for wetland permits, or not. Right now, the situation is very confusing with different layers of federal and state rules and regulations. More clarity and consistency would be extremely helpful as farmers adhere to the Required Agricultural Practices and employ Best Management Practices that help clean the waters of the State and potentially sequester carbon.

We had testimony from Didi Pershouse, Board Chair of the Soil Carbon Coalition, describing how important organic matter is to our soil. She demonstrated how this works with a small pile of flour on one plate and a stack of three slices of bread on another. She then simulated a rain cloud with a paper cup in which holes were poked with a toothpick. When she poured water into the cup over the plate with flour, the water ran off the flour and did not sink in. When she poured the water into the cup over the plate with the bread, the water was immediately absorbed by the bread and did not run off. Because of the introduction of yeast to the flour in the breadmaking process, a sponge is developed, which allows for the absorption of water more quickly. In the case of soil, organic matter creates the same sort of sponge that allows increased and quicker absorption of water, which is then stored and released slowly during times of drought.

According to their website, www.soilcarboncoalition.org, “The Soil Carbon Coalition is a nonprofit organization working to advance the practice, and spread awareness of the opportunity, of turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil, organic matter, and humus.” Not only does this buildup of organic matter help with agricultural run-off, it helps with the increased run-off like what we saw with Tropical Storm Irene. The more water our soil can hold, the less will run downhill causing flooding and the destruction of roads and property. What is critical, is the build-up of organic matter in the soil.

It is somewhat counterintuitive. Many of us, myself included, feel it is necessary to rototill in order to “fluff” soil up to prepare it for garden planting. In fact, tilling breaks up the organic matter and destroys the “fabric” of the soil. I, however, have yet to figure out how to cover crop my garden without my vegetables getting overwhelmed by weeds. Anyone with great ideas for how to deal with this problem is welcome to contact me! But I have seen what happens during big rain events. A rivulet forms in the middle of the garden and washes soil down to the end. Luckily, the silt gets trapped by a small berm and does not run off into the road. I have also observed that the land around my garden has been building up and my garden has not despite many additions of sheep and goat manure.

Our Agricultural Housekeeping Bill contains some interesting provisions including the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP) that passed the House last year but, unfortunately, did not become law. The ESP, which is currently a pilot project at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, encourages farmers to build the organic matter in their soil and potentially rewards them for going beyond the mandates of the Required Agricultural Practices.

Also included is a new Ecosystem Services Investment Program (ESIP) that would provide Vermont farms with financial assistance for the implementation of alternative nutrient reduction practices that improve soil quality, nutrient retention, and reduce agricultural waste discharges. Practices that may be eligible for assistance to farms under the grant program include conservation easements, land acquisition, farm structure decommissioning, site reclamation, and payments for ecosystem services.

The ESIP recognizes the contribution agriculture can make to improving the environment by cleaning the water, building organic matter in the soil, and sequestering carbon. Money, already available to the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, for water clean-up would be used to fund this program.

Town Meeting Day is always busy and one of my favorites. On Saturday, my district-mate, Rep. Matt Trieber, and I will visit the Westminster Town Meeting at the Bellows Falls Union High School. Monday night is the Rockingham Town Meeting, which I may have to miss for the first time in 21 years due to a Windham School District informational meeting at 5 PM. On Tuesday, Matt and I will start in Brookline at 9 AM. We usually make a few brief remarks and then answer questions, which we welcome. When we’re done in Brookline we move on to Athens, Grafton, and finally to Windham where we visit with folks and have lunch. It’s then on to Bellows Falls where we stand in front of the polls visiting with voters.

I’ve always felt that Town Meeting is one of the purest forms of democracy. Everyone is welcome to speak their minds in a respectful, civil way. People may disagree but, hopefully, sit down for lunch and break bread together. I appreciate it when citizens participate and am always glad to get input on that which we are working. Afterall, together, we govern!