3.19.2021 – Raw Milk Passes as Does the Agricultural Innovation Board

This week, as predicted, was busy, in committees and on the Floor. The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee was able to pass two bills – the Raw Milk Bill (H.218) that I wrote about last week and the Agricultural Innovation Bill (H.434), which has exciting implications for the future.

The Raw Milk Bill passed on a strong vote, though not without some last-minute intrigue as an amendment was offered on third reading. The amendment would have essentially negated the intent of the bill, which is to offer Tier 2 farmers who produce raw milk the opportunity to expand sales to farm stands and CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture) owned by someone other than themselves.

Tier 2 raw milk producers have stringent requirements placed on them, including that their milk is tested twice a month for total bacterial, total coliform, and somatic cell counts. Elevations in any of those areas indicate a potential problem and steps are taken to correct it. The proposed amendment would have required an additional test for pathogens including Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter using polymerase chain reaction pathogen (PCR) testing.

As we considered the amendment, it became clear that this provision was untenable in terms of being able to have the test performed and still meet the requirement of a four-day shelf life for the milk. When research was done regarding the cost and turnaround time of doing the tests and the shipping costs and timeline, it was clear that any benefit to the farmer would have been eliminated. Also, given the twelve-year track record for our Tier 2 producers with no problems, this expensive, time-consuming measure was not warranted.

Our committee found the amendment unfriendly on a unanimous vote and we were supported on the House Floor by a strong vote as well.

We do want to be clear that raw milk is unpasteurized and does present a risk to some people, but the containers are labeled with a warning and signs are posted with the same warning language where customers can easily see it. We also want farmers to know that if there is a problem, they are ultimately responsible as well as the farm stand and/or the CSA owner and all parties should consult their insurance companies to make sure they are covered for liability.

Our other bill is a committee bill that now has a number, H.434, an act establishing the Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB). We started the conversation about this proposal last year, but it was curtailed by our departure from Montpelier due to COVID-19. Essentially what it does is replace the current Vermont Pesticide Advisory Committee (VPAC) with the AIB, which will continue to do the work of VPAC but take on other responsibilities as well.

To give a little background, the VPAC was established during the Kunin Administration to “review insect, plant disease, weed, nematode, rodent, noxious wildlife and other pest control programs within the state to assess the effect of such programs on human health and comfort, natural resources, water, wildlife, and food and fiber production, and where necessary make recommendations for greater safety and efficiency.” The Council consists primarily of government agency/department and University of Vermont members with two public members with expertise in environmental/health and agricultural areas.

Recently, their main function has been to review right-of-way and other permits and make recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) regarding them.

The plan is to rename the VPAC, expand its mission, and alter the membership to fit the goals of the new AIB. There are many things that have changed over the thirty-plus years since VPAC was established in terms of agricultural practices, pesticides and their use, and agriculture’s role in climate change and water quality improvement. Among other things, the AIB will review and make recommendations for prioritizing and implementing the recommendations of the Soil Health and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group and the Vermont Climate Council. They will recommend practices that reduce the use of and exposure to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in order to protect human health, soil biology, and environmental health. Additionally, they will advise the Executive Branch and the General Assembly with respect to legislation concerning the use of agricultural pest control measures and integrated pest management.

In recent years, legislation has been sponsored that would ban pesticides such as glyphosate, atrazine, and chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos was deregistered in Vermont in response to a letter and petition that we submitted to the AAFM several years ago. Presently, one may not buy, possess, or use chlorpyrifos in the state of Vermont, so it is essentially banned. Glyphosate is used as part of cover cropping, which is one of the regenerative agricultural practices that is enabling agriculture to take credit for 96% of the phosphorus reduction in Lake Champlain. Many people would like to reduce or eliminate the use of glyphosate. As mentioned earlier, one of the charges of the AIB is to look for ways to reduce the use and dependence on pesticides in their practices and incentivize that reduction. They will also research and recommend practices to reduce the use and generation of waste associated with plastic in farming.

Another interesting subject the AIB will take on is treated articles, which are articles or substances that are treated with or containing a registered pesticide that protects the article or substance itself. A good example of a treated article is telephone poles that are treated to protect them against degradation. Treated seed is also a treated article. Treated articles are not considered pesticides under federal law and Vermont is the only state in the country that has regulatory authority over them due to legislation we passed a few years ago. As a part of its responsibilities, the AIB will recommend to the Secretary of Agriculture policies, proposed rules, or legislation for regulation of treated articles.

In order to fulfill the expanded responsibilities of the new board, the membership will change somewhat and meet four times a year as opposed to the current two times a year. Instead of just government and university members with two members of the public, we will expand the board to fourteen members, including eight public members with expertise in agricultural and environmental fields. They will include a soil biologist or certified crop consultant, a member of the of the farming community who practices organic agriculture, a representative from an organization involved in land conservation, a member of the public knowledgeable in agricultural water management, and a representative from an environmental advocacy organization. Also included will be members of the public representing the dairy industry; fruit and vegetable production; and grass-based, non-dairy livestock farming in Vermont. Rounding out the board will be the Secretaries of AAFM and Natural Resources or their designees; the Commissioner of Health; the Director of the AAFM Agrichemical Program; the Director of the AAFM Water Quality Program; and a member from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

We are excited about this development and feel the new AIB will be a valuable asset as we grapple with current and future agricultural issues. H.434 passed unanimously and is on its way to the Senate.