2.25.2022 – Town Meeting, Accessory On-Farm Businesses, and the Neonic Bill
It’s hard to believe that Town Meeting week is upon us already. It seems like we just started the Legislative Session yesterday and we are almost halfway through it. Perhaps, it’s the changing nature of the situation, hybrid and now mostly in-person, but the time has certainly flown.
Historically, one of my favorite activities on Town Meeting Day has been to visit each of the towns that I represent and do a short presentation with a question-and-answer period following. My district-mate and I would go to Westminster on Saturday, Rockingham on Monday night, and on Tuesday we would start early in Brookline, and then head up to Athens and Grafton, ending up in Windham where we would partake in the famed potluck lunch. True confession – along the line we would snack on yummy baked goods that were available in most towns!
Unfortunately, due to the uncertainty around Omicron, we won’t be doing our usual route, but I’m hoping we will be back to normal next year. I wish everyone a safe and civil Town Meeting Day and wish I could be there to visit with you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have concerns, questions, or ideas. At this time, the best way to contact me is at firstname.lastname@example.org or at my home phone 802-874-4182.
This past week, we worked primarily on two bills. We are looking at Sections 16 and 17 of H.581, which is the Omnibus Rural Economic Development Bill that is technically not in our committee but relates to accessory on-farm businesses. We were the committee that originally worked on and passed the accessory on-farm business bill several years ago, so it made sense for us to clarify and potentially expand the ability for on-farm businesses to be more successful.
When we initially passed the bill, we wanted to set a floor for what farms could do to augment their income. We said that no municipal bylaw (zoning) could prohibit an accessory on-farm business as long as it is located on the same land as a farm. We allowed for the storage, preparation, processing, and sale of qualifying products, which are defined in the bill, provided that more than 50% of the total annual sales are from those qualifying products that are produced on the farm at which the business is located. If those conditions are met, a farm could develop the business without having to get an Act 250 permit. This also gave the farmer an opportunity to bring in more raw materials from other farms for their operation as long as more than 50% came from their own farm. Additionally, this allowed for the sharing of equipment by other farmers. While a farmer doesn’t need to get an Act 250 permit if all of the criteria are being met, they are subject to a site plan review by the municipality and the usual performance standards such as traffic concerns, noise, parking, lighting, screening, etc., if it is deemed necessary.
Both Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWG) bills, H.581 and H.566 were developed after extensive work, including summer and fall field trips and Zoom presentations. The two sections regarding accessory on-farm businesses in H.581 were included based on the feedback received by the REDWG. Their suggestions include adding municipal and regional plans to the documents that can’t prohibit accessory on-farm businesses. It also specifies that “the total area of improvements associated with the accessory on-farm business does not exceed one acre.” There are some additional placeholder provisions that we are researching to see if they are necessary. We will continue work on these sections of H.581 after Town Meeting week.
The other bill we focused on was H.626, which is a bill relating to the sale, use, or application of neonicotinoid pesticides. It is a complicated subject with conflicting scientific data. Part of the complexity is that many of the studies that have been performed are feeding studies, which means that bees are fed the pesticides. As one would expect, they result in dire consequences. Field studies, which more resemble natural circumstances, are fewer and do not show the same results.
We know that bees, domesticated and wild, are suffering due to several factors including loss of habitat and forage, urbanization, disease/parasites, and pesticides. The bill and the redraft done by Rural VT, NOFA VT, and a representative from a Lake Champlain organization, calls for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides if the Agency of Agriculture doesn’t promulgate rules in two years. Rulemaking can take from eight to eighteen months and the threat of a ban does not leave much cushion for unforeseen events like a continuing pandemic.
A ban would have a serious impact on our farmers, in particular, those who raise corn. Untreated seed is not widely available and needs to be ordered in September before the growing season begins. There has been little research done in Vermont regarding crop yield loss between treated and untreated seed. Concern about crop loss includes a discussion about the need to compensate farmers for that loss if they were to use untreated seed. Additionally, if farmers did not grow corn at all and sourced it from other areas in the country, we would be importing phosphorus into the state, which is the last thing we want.
We will, hopefully, pass a bill that does not include a ban but will take positive steps to determine what research needs to be done and ask the recently created Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB) to recommend rules with an eye to reduce the use of treated seed, as well as any other suggestions to improve pollinator health. Another encouraging bit of news is that Dr. Heather Darby at UVM Extension will be running field studies comparing untreated corn seed yields with treated corn seed yields, which will hopefully reveal important data.
I would like to note that over the years, we, in Vermont, have been proactive regarding genetically engineered products and pesticides. We prohibited the possession, sale, and use of chlorpyrifos in 2017, an issue that many states are now dealing with. We required the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, which was unfortunately pre-empted by the United States Congress. We are the only state that authorizes the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to regulate the use of treated articles, including treated seed and we banned the use of products containing neonicotinoid pesticides for household use. Neonicotinoid pesticides are now restricted use only. We are also the only state that has a Seed Review Panel, now functioning as part of the AIB, in response to the Dicamba drift issue. In some ways, we are way ahead of the rest of the country, but we will continue to take positive steps to improve the environment for our wild and domesticated pollinators.