The 2022 Legislative Session was gaveled in at 10 AM at the State House on Jan. 4th. More than 120 representatives made the trip to Montpelier to be present as we worked on and passed several resolutions that allowed us to return home and conduct our business remotely.
It was wonderful to be back in the State House seeing folks in person, albeit masked and at a distance. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, the Omicron variant will have run its course in Vermont, and we will be able to meet in person again.
The rest of the week our committee worked virtually, getting updates and briefings from the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM); advocates from the agriculture sector; and our Legislative Counselor, Michael O’Grady.
Michael O’Grady gave an overview regarding some of the things we might be hearing about and want to continue to pursue during the Session. These include the work of the Dairy Task Force; compost, including digestate, PFAs (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and microplastics; the work of the Climate Council; Right to Farm protection; Waters of the United States EPA rule; Payment for Ecosystems Services; water quality funding; pesticide litigation; slaughter regulations; the definition of farming in regard to accessory on-farm businesses; the 2023 Federal Farm Bill; and African Swine Influenza concerns. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us.
We were fortunate to have updates from seven AAFM employees including Secretary Anson Tebbetts. One of Anson’s concerns is the mental health of our farmers, especially dairy farmers. Things were tough enough before COVID-19 struck, with low milk prices and higher input costs but some of these challenges have been exacerbated because of the pandemic. There is a shortage of drivers to pick up and deliver milk and labor issues extend to shortages in dairy processor and farm workers. Companies are hiring at good wages with signing bonuses.
A significant amount of money, $500,000, has been devoted to mental health for farmers and farm workers. Farm First is a non-profit program sponsored jointly by the Vermont AAFM and the Vermont Agency of Human Services’ Invest EAP Centers for Wellbeing. Services, free to all Vermont farmers and their family members, are meant to reduce the stress being experienced in our agricultural sector.
Farm First was founded in Vermont in 2009 after a tragic incident in New York state. If you are a farmer having problems or know of someone who is, please call 802-318-5538 during daytime work hours or 877-493-6216 to reach their 24/7 hotline. You can also email Karen Crowley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do not hesitate to contact them, you might save a life.
Secretary Tebbetts also touched on some of the other stressors in the agricultural sector including the need for affordable housing and livable wages for farm workers. The pandemic added to the need for more meat processing facilities, and we dedicated more than $500,000 to the expansion of meat plants.
We were pleased to hear that 94% of the phosphorus reductions in the Lake Champlain watershed were due to agriculture and there will be $4.9 million available over the next four years for phosphorus reduction projects under the Pay for Performance program.
Our committee was asked to review and make a recommendation regarding proposals included in the Budget Adjustment Act. An additional $5+ million was suggested by the Administration for clean water projects, including Best Management Practices. As with many things, costs have been higher for some of these projects and the additional money will be used to cover resulting cost overruns. Given the importance of these projects to water quality improvement, our committee recommended unanimously to support these increased investments to the House Appropriations Committee.
We were also interested to hear about the critical role the Vermont Agriculture and Environmental Lab has played during the pandemic including COVID-19 testing. They were able to shift their focus as certain testing needs decreased to increase their work in other services including drinking water testing. Their latest audit indicated excellent results.
As a reminder as the 2022 Session begins, legislators can be reached via email by using the first initial of our first name, our last name, and @leg.state.vt.us. For instance, mine is email@example.com. You can view my website at www.carolynpartridge.com where I post my weekly articles. To follow legislative action, check out the website at www.legislature.vermont.gov, where you can find all of the standing committees and follow us on YouTube. When we get back to Montpelier, you can call the State House toll free at 1-800-322-5616, leave a message with the Sergeant at Arms, and they will deliver the message to me. I will respond as quickly as possible. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with your thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Together, we govern!