4.8.2022 – Food Security and the Vermont Right to Farm Law
As we look at the big picture of food security and how we assure the availability of food for our region, there are challenges that need to be met. This is something that we have been discussing for a while in the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee (HAFC). Testimony from Ellen Kahler, Executive Director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), and her work with a group known as “New England Feeding New England” (NEFNE) has been fascinating as they dig into what it would take for the New England states to provide even fifty percent of the dietary needs for our six states.
Recently, I heard a radio piece concerning the same issue from another part of the country, so we are not alone in thinking about this. I’m sure the pandemic and the resulting empty grocery store shelves has had something to do with that.
Part of the work that NEFNE has done is to consider how many additional acres would be necessary to fill the gap – I remember the figure of two million, but that may have changed by now. One of the thoughts is that with climate change, there will probably be more arable acres to be had in a state like Maine. The group is also looking at how our diets may need to change in order to accomplish the goal – obviously, things like citrus fruit and avocados would be harder to source. It’s definitely an interesting subject to investigate and though it may seem a little fantastical, it is something we should think about and plan for if we want to avoid food shortages during a supply chain disruption due to another pandemic, climate change, or natural disasters.
At the same time, we are encountering a phenomenon, also in large part due to the pandemic, that may present an additional challenge. We have seen a huge influx of people from other states moving to Vermont to, in some cases, escape the crowded nature of the states they have moved from and for the quality of life that we enjoy. In my opinion, the beauty of our working lands plays a huge part in the attraction that draws people here, whether they are new full-time residents or part-timers.
Although we hope it doesn’t, conflict can sometimes arise from the reality of what it truly means to be living in proximity to working land. Be it the necessity to use noisy heavy equipment for a logging operation or the practices necessary to keep a farm running, these can sometimes be an intrusion into a new resident’s idyllic vision of what they thought life would be like in Vermont.
Based on some of the stories we have been hearing, HAFC decided to take testimony on Vermont’s Right to Farm (RTF) Law and whether or not it is strong enough. Currently, the RTF Law that we passed in 2003 provides some protection from nuisance lawsuits for agricultural activities and lists the following: “the cultivation or other use of land for producing food, fiber, Christmas trees, maple sap, or horticultural and orchard crops; the raising, feeding, or management of domestic animals as defined in 6 V.S.A. § 1151 or bees; the operation of greenhouses; the production of maple syrup; the on-site storage, preparation, and sale of agricultural products principally produced on the farm; and the on-site production of fuel or power from agricultural products or wastes principally produced on the farm;” and goes on to include “the preparation, tilling, fertilization, planting, protection, irrigation, and harvesting of crops; the composting of material principally produced by the farm or to be used at least in part on the farm; the ditching and subsurface drainage of farm fields and the construction of farm ponds; the handling of livestock wastes and by-products; and the on-site storage and application of agricultural inputs, including lime, fertilizer, and pesticides.”
The law provides that these agricultural activities are “entitled to a rebuttable presumption that the activity does not constitute a nuisance if the agricultural activity meets all of the following conditions: (A) it is conducted in conformity with federal, State, and local laws and regulations (including required agricultural practices); (B) it is consistent with good agricultural practices; (C) it is established prior to surrounding nonagricultural activities; and (D) it has not significantly changed since the commencement of the prior surrounding nonagricultural activity.” This lays out the concept of “coming to the nuisance,” or moving in near a pre-existing farm, but does not prevent nuisance suits if there is “a showing that the activity has a substantial adverse effect on health, safety, or welfare, or has a noxious and significant interference with the use and enjoyment of the neighboring property.”
It’s clear that over the nearly 20 years since the original RTF Law was passed, there have been many changes in our agricultural practices, especially with the advent of regenerative practices (cover cropping, low- and no-tillage, and manure injection) that are meant to improve water quality and sequester carbon. It’s for that reason that we are considering updating our RTF Law.
In testimony last week, we heard that our RTF Law is relatively weak compared with other states in our region. We also heard from one witness regarding a small farm with a farm stand that was loved by its neighbors until they had chicken manure, among the worst for odor, trucked in. The neighbors who had had a great relationship with the farm, unfortunately threw rocks at the truck bringing the manure.
We are aware that it pays to be on good terms with your neighbors. Walt Gladstone from Newmont Farm in Fairlee spoke to us about the efforts they make to keep their neighbors informed about what they are doing with newsletters and a webpage. They are an 1,800 head Holstein dairy operation that also offers beef, pork, and pumpkins. They are proud to be fifty percent solar powered. They focus on cow comfort, offer an open farm day, and try to let neighbors know about odors with a “What’s that Smell?” notification, presumably in their newsletter.
The Gladstone’s are good neighbors. We are also aware that there may be an occasional farmer who is not, and we heard an example of one who agitated their manure pit unnecessarily after a complaint from a neighbor. We are sensitive to that kind of situation, and it isn’t our intent to protect people who are being bad neighbors.
Our goal is to strike a balance that allows farmers to do what they need to do to keep their farms running efficiently while protecting them from folks who might not understand that if you move in next to a farm, you may have to occasionally smell manure during the spreading season.