4.30.2021 – Ag Bills Progress and Forest-based Businesses Need Help

It seems hard to believe, but the end of the 2021 Legislative Session is in sight. After last year’s marathon session through the summer and into the fall, it’s a welcome thought that we may adjourn sometime in the next few weeks – the tentative goal is May 22nd.

It has been an interesting year conducting business via Zoom while watching from my vantage point on Old Cheney Road here in Windham. What a delight, witnessing the changes on Turkey Mountain as we’ve gone from snow covered woods to that lovely tinge of greens and pinks on the hillsides as the buds emerge in spring. And then there was that additional foot of snow on April 16th!

The work of the House Agriculture and Forestry is progressing well, and it seems that most of the bills we worked on and passed are making their way through the Senate. With the passage of S.102, an act relating to the regulation of agricultural inputs for farming, we are in a bit of a holding pattern as we wait for our bills to come back from the Senate. We understand that H.89, an act relating to limiting liability for agritourism is on its way back from Senate Judiciary, which is welcome news. H.89 is one of those bills that fell victim to the coronavirus last year and died when we turned our attention to COVID-19-oriented bills and the session ended.

If passed, it will give farmers who have diversified into things like corn mazes, hayrides, food tastings, etc., a level of protection from liability. An agritourism host would not be liable for injury to or the death of a participant in an agritourism activity resulting from the inherent risks of the activity. This does not mean that a farmer should not carry insurance, but it may make the insurance less expensive. If injury or death does occur, judgments would be made on a case-by-case basis and would be fact specific. If H.89 passes, we will join thirty-plus other states that have enacted similar legislation.

Another bill that died last year as a result of the pandemic is H.421, an act relating to animal cruelty investigation response and training. The most important aspect of H.421 is that it defines “humane officer” once, and hopefully, for all. This is a good example of all stakeholders coming together to find a solution to a thorny problem that will clarify what one needs to do to qualify as a humane officer and under what circumstances one may act as one. H.421 was a companion bill to last year’s adequate shelter for livestock bill that did make it through the process and is anxiously awaiting H.421’s arrival. The hope is that true animal cruelty cases will be more readily investigated by people who are qualified to do so, know what to look for, and how to proceed.

We are also waiting for H.434, an act that creates the Agricultural Innovation Board, an exciting prospect that will convene a diverse group of people who will have an opportunity to look at ways to reduce the use of pesticides; regulate the use of treated articles, for instance, treated seed, if necessary; and reduce the use and generation of waste associated with plastic. Recently raised concerns about microplastics in our agricultural soils will be addressed by this group as well as the Agricultural Residuals Program that will be established in the above-mentioned S.102.

Our Miscellaneous Agricultural Housekeeping Bill, H.420, aka the Christmas Tree, should be voted out this week by the Senate Agriculture Committee and we look forward to seeing how fully decorated it is when it gets back to us.

To make good use of our time while we wait for our bills to return, we were requested to take a look at some language regarding forestry that passed last year in H.926, the Act 250 revision bill, which ended up on the Senate’s cutting room floor. Included are definitions for “forest-based enterprise” and “forest product,” as well as revisions to permit conditions on forest- based enterprises.

We have taken disturbing testimony from the general manager of a Pittsfield business that produces kiln-dried firewood (so important to slow the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer), which has 32 pages of crippling permit conditions placed on it. The business had been operating for decades before a neighbor moved in asking for these conditions, one of which requires any trucks leaving the premises to turn left (even if they need to turn right), drive down the road, and turn around to proceed on their way. Because the conditions have been so difficult to deal with in Pittsfield, they have expanded to Sharon and Andover, which has increased their over-the-road miles by 28,000 per year since 2004. Talk about carbon footprint!!

It is our hope that this can be dealt with as soon as possible. Our forest-based enterprises are struggling because of the closure of mills in Maine as well as other market pressures. This becomes a problem for many of us with forested land in the Current Use Program who rely on foresters, loggers, and processors to meet the requirements of our forestry management plans.

In the way of a public service announcement, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development and the House Committee on Government Operations will hold a joint public hearing on Tuesday, May 4 from 5-7 PM to hear from Vermont employers and employees regarding the problems they have had with unemployment insurance during the pandemic. If you wish to speak at the hearing, please go to https://bit.ly/3gQYpfb to pre-register. Registration will be done on a first-come, first-served basis. Because speakers will be limited to two minutes per person, I recommend that you write down what you want to say, be succinct, and practice saying it. You may also submit your remarks in writing by sending a PDF or MS Word file to testimony@leg.state.vt.us. If you wish to watch the proceeding on YouTube, go to https://bit.ly/3vryVsQ, where it will be live-streamed.

One of the areas hit hardest by the pandemic has been our restaurant industry. Almost overnight, the coronavirus put our restaurants out of business until some were able to pivot to help with meals programs. The good news is that there is a Restaurant Revitalization Fund established to help restaurants and other eligible businesses by providing funding equal to their pandemic-related loss up to ten million dollars per business but no more than five million per location.

The application portal will be opened by the U.S. Small Business Administration on May 3 at noon, but you may pre-register starting on April 30 at 9 am. For more information go to https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/covid-19-relief-options/restaurant-revitalization-fund. It should be noted that repayment will not be required if funds are used for eligible purposes by March 11, 2023.

Of great concern to our education community is the learning loss that has been suffered by our students due to the pandemic. Most schools have experienced some disruption in classroom education, whether it’s virtual/remote learning or part-time in person.

To address some of those concerns, we recently passed S.114, which is aimed at strengthening literacy instruction. The grade levels being targeted are Pre-Kindergarten through three with the knowledge that this age group is where these basic, foundational literacy skills are best learned. Professional development for teachers may also be included. If the bill is approved by the Senate and Governor Scott, three million dollars will be dedicated to supervisory unions to implement evidence-based best practices to teach literacy. Also included in the bill is the creation of the Advisory Council on Literacy, which among other things, will make recommendations on how to improve literacy outcomes in all grades.

It is my hope that the value and importance of small schools is recognized as a result of the pandemic. We have been extremely fortunate in Windham in that our elementary school was able to provide in-person education four days a week since the beginning of the school year and probably could have gone five days a week, due to our size. We are thankful for our dedicated Windham staff and their commitment to our children and their education, as well as all Vermont teachers for their hard work during these difficult times.