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3.15.2019 – Soil Health and Water Quality Provisions and Neonicotinoids

The energy levels were high at the State House this week. With crossover on Friday, the policy committees were buzzing with activity. I’m happy to report the House Agriculture and Forestry voted out several bills and got our work done by Thursday. On Friday, we rewarded ourselves by having a bit of a field trip, travelling to Waitsfield to visit the Mad River Taste Place, which is also home to the Vermont Cheese Council.

Among the bills we passed out of committee this week was our agricultural “housekeeping” bill. Housekeeping bills usually include fairly technical changes. This year’s also included several soil health and water quality provisions, one of which we passed last year that did not make it into law.

The Environmental Stewardship Program recognizes farmers who go beyond what is required by the Required Agricultural Practices (RAP). The purpose, among other things is to “enhance the economic viability of farms in Vermont; improve the health and productivity of the soils of Vermont; encourage farmers to implement regenerative farming practices; reduce the amount of agricultural waste entering the waters of Vermont; and enhance crop resilience to rainfall fluctuations and mitigate water damage to crops, land, and surrounding infrastructure.” Perhaps, most importantly, we want to “help the next generation of Vermont farmers learn regenerative farming practices so that farming remains integral to the economy, landscape, and culture of Vermont”.

We also create in State law the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), something that has been in existence on a federal level for several years. The CREP program provides assistance to implement practices such as riparian forest buffers, grassed waterways, and grassed filter strips. These are all practices that improve soil quality and nutrient retention and reduce agricultural wastes discharges.

The Ecosystem Services Incentive Program (ESIP) is created to encourage the implementation of alternative nutrient reduction practices that will improve soil quality, nutrient retention, and reduce agricultural waste discharges. We have talked at length about how farmers can be part of the solution in the clean up of Lake Champlain. By increasing organic matter in their soil, they can improve water quality, sequester carbon, and create soil that has the ability to absorb more rainfall, so critical at this time of increased extreme weather events and resulting precipitation. The ESIP would help with conservation easements and land acquisition, as well as with farm structure decommissioning and site reclamation if a farm’s location is unworkable. Payments for ecosystem services, as the name implies, would also be available to recognize the value of the services provided by our sometimes, struggling farmers.

It is clear, given these three initiatives, that our agricultural community is serious about being part of the solution as we move into the future and that the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets is thinking creatively to help farmers employ constructive soil health/water quality strategies in a timely manner.

Another of our bills is H.205, an act relating to the regulation of neonicotinoid pesticides, or what we call our Pollinator Protection Bill. For several years, we have been trying to strike a reasonable balance to protect our domestic pollinators (honeybees) and our native, wild ones. Last year’s effort did not make it through the process.

This year’s bill bans the use of products containing neonicotinoids, neonics for short, for outdoor purposes. I have written, in the past, about the fact that this class of pesticides was developed to replace organophosphates, which were more toxic to mammals. Neonics, however, are being used in less necessary ways that endanger or kill pollinators. We believe that sometimes people don’t realize the product they’re using is having a negative effect because the labeling is not entirely clear. If you read a label and see any of the following ingredients, please consider not buying the product for outdoor use: imidacloprid, clothianidin, acetamiprid, nithiazine, dinotefuran, thiamethoxam, or thiacloprid. If our bill makes it through the entire process and becomes law, stores in Vermont should be able to return any of the products containing these ingredients for a refund. Vermonters who already own them should stop using them for outdoor purposes.

H.205 allows for several exemptions including one for pet care products, such as flea collars and treatments. Personal care products that are used for lice treatments and bedbugs may continue to be used. Products used for indoor pest control will continue to be exempt and treated article seeds used in agriculture, primarily corn and soybean, can still be used. Last year’s bill included a provision that if a seed store sells treated seed, they would also have to provide untreated seed with the understanding that such seed would have to be ordered in advance. We did not include that provision in this year’s bill, but I believe that opportunity would still be available to farmers.

One of the very important goals of H.205 is to educate beekeepers about the negative effects that Varroa mites are having on, not only our domestic honeybees, but native pollinators as well, in terms of the viruses that they spread. Beekeepers will be asked when they register their hives, to report a current Varroa mite and pest mitigation plan for each registered hive.

The AAFM is asked to establish a training program that will address the areas of bee health, varroa mite identification and control, identification of common diseases or pests, proper maintenance of hives, State laws regarding beekeeping and pesticide application, and continued educational opportunities. A person who completes the course will be a awarded a Vermont Beekeeper Certificate. The original draft of the bill required this training for anyone who bought a bee hive, but it was thought to be impractical. I, as someone who has kept bees for several years, look forward to being able to take this course when it becomes available. I have bee “mentors” who have been extremely helpful but think this is a great opportunity to spread knowledge to better protect our pollinators, both domestic and wild.

The bill also changes the requirements for people who are transporting and importing bee colonies and/or used equipment to and from Vermont. The goal is to reduce the transmission of disease. We have made exemptions when the hives are registered in Vermont, the distance of transport is no more than 75 miles from the registered location of the owner of the bees or colonies, and they are imported back into the State within 90 days of the date of original transport.

We heard testimony from many witnesses on H.205. We know that we have not made everyone completely happy and that there are those who wish we had done nothing, but this is a start on protecting our pollinators, which are so important to us, our environment, and the food that we eat.