4.3.2020 – Committee Meetings Start Via Zoom, Farmers’ Markets, and VT Foodbank

First of all, I hope this column finds you healthy and staying home unless you have to go out for necessities. It appears that this practice is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and for that, we are all grateful. We send our condolences to the folks who have lost their loved ones to the virus.

This week, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee got its legs under it regarding meetings via Zoom. You may have heard about the Senate Agriculture meeting that was “Zoom bombed” with inappropriate material and as a result more security measures are being implemented. The breach was in fact the result of one of the senators mistakenly posting the Zoom invite link rather than the YouTube link on which the meeting could be viewed.

Committees have been asked to focus on COVID-19-related topics, so our first meeting started off with the situation in which farmers find themselves in terms of marketing their produce as a result of the virus. Former State Representative Will Stevens, is, in partnership with his wife Judy, the owner of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. He is concerned about how they will be allowed to run their farm store in light of the virus. While agriculture is considered an essential business, they sell ornamental plants along with vegetable starts and produce and may not be considered an essential business.

Abbey Willard, Agriculture Development Director at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) explained that it is complicated and hard to give specific feedback based on the guidance issued. Critical/essential functions can continue with social distancing but what exactly is essential? If sales can be handled online or by phone with non-person-to-person contact for pickup, business can continue. Ornamentals are not considered essential so if all someone sells are ornamental plants, the thought is that activity can wait for a while. The bottom line is person-to person contact is not allowed and they don’t want mingling in greenhouses even though greenhouses are considered agriculture under the Required Agricultural Practices.

Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and farm stands/stores are considered critical and essential as long as there is limited person-to-person contact. At this point, farmers’ markets are not deemed essential because of the culture of social contact. Generally, farmers’ markets are gathering places with music, prepared food, and socializing, but that is to be avoided.

That being said, we also took testimony from a representative from the Bennington Farmers’ Market. They have worked on protocol for online and phone orders with curbside. We were very fortunate to have Secretary of AAFM, Anson Tebbetts, in the meeting with us as well, and after quite a bit of discussion it was determined that the Bennington Farmers’ Market could go forward this Saturday because of their plan with restricted person-to-person contact. Other farmers’ markets should be discussing and enacting these protocols and contacting the Agency in order to have a successful spring and summer market.

It should be noted that the 14 winter farmers’ markets represent $1.2 million per month in income to our farmers per month. When all 67 markets are open during the summer, the figure is $2.8 million per month.

I recently saw a news report regarding the situation in the State of Georgia where cucumber, squash, and blueberry crops are nearing harvest time and there is no one to pick them. Their workers, mostly from Guatemala, are unable to enter the US and if that situation is not corrected, those crops will rot in the field. I think Vermonters will gain a greater appreciation for our farmers as food availability and resilience become an issue.

Our local artisanal cheesemakers have been struggling because so many restaurants have closed. The Vermont Cheese Council (www.vtcheese.com) has set up an online opportunity for people to order cheese either directly from the producer or from retail markets that carry their products. To order cheese go to http://www.vtcheese.com/vtcheesing/#makerdetail and follow the links.

We also heard testimony from John Sayles and Nicole Whalen of the VT Foodbank. They have seen a huge increase in the number of Vermonters who are accessing their services. According to John Sayles, “the Foodbank has spent approximately $681,000 on COVID-19 response in the past 2 weeks. That is for food and other supply purchases (delivery in 3-6 weeks), direct grant to network partner food shelves and meal sites, leasing additional trucks, a tent for safe sorting conditions, and additional purchases from Vermont farmers.” While they expect help from the federal government, it will not come close to meeting the need.

Needless to say, if you need help, are able to help, or could make a donation to the cause, go to www.vtfoodbank.org for information on how to do so.

It’s sad to know that there are those who would run scams at this time of great distress but that is apparently the case. I’m including the following warnings as a public service announcement. They come courtesy of the Community of Vermont Elders but are a good warning for everyone. Beware of the following:

Fake Stimulus Checks. There are fake checks circulating right now. It will take at least three weeks for direct deposits to land and up to 10 weeks for paper checks to arrive by mail. If you receive any checks now, it is a fraud. Telltale signs are checks written in odd amounts or include cents, or a check that requires you to verify receipt online or by calling a number.

Facebook, text, or social media messages claiming to get in touch with you. Scammers are reaching out to people online on social media platforms or by sending text messages with claims they are from the IRS or other government agency and are trying to get in touch with you regarding your stimulus check. Ignore these messages. The U.S. Government will never reach out to you via any social media platform or by text.

US Emergency Grants Federation is a fake website. Scammers pose as a government agency and will send a link to this website or something similar for you to verify personal information. The government does not do this. The government already has the information they need and will not reach out to you for verification of your social security number or other personal identification.

Processing Fee. Scammers pose as the IRS or other government agency claiming you can receive your stimulus check faster if you pay a processing fee. There is no such thing and there is no way to speed up the IRS payment process.

Any correspondence with the IRS or U.S. Treasury. The IRS will never call or email you to verify any personal information. This includes your social security number, bank account number, or anything that allows access to your identity. As soon as you receive a call or email saying they are from the IRS or U.S. Treasury, hang up or trash it.

These scammers and fraudsters are professional criminals and will use a variety of methods to steal your personal identification and your money. They use scare tactics and even attempt to befriend vulnerable people into trusting them.

To report a scam call or email contact the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424.

As for me, I’m busily sewing surgical masks, running committee meetings on Zoom (which can be accessed by going to our committee webpage and clicking the Live Stream option), and attending a myriad of other meetings online as well. For now, stay home, stay safe, and be well.