It was a hectic week in the State House as policy committees worked hard to vote bills out before the crossover deadline on Friday. For those who don’t know, crossover is the date by which bills need to be out of their policy committees in order to be considered by the other body without a rules suspension. Bills either go directly to the Floor or to a money committee (Appropriations and/or Ways and Means). Those that go to a money committee have an additional week to be voted out so things will be hectic for the members of those committees for another week.
I am pleased to say that the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee was able to reach its goal and vote out the bills that we had intended to complete.
Early in the week, we were voted out H.626, which is a bill relating to neonicotinoid pesticides, or as we call them for short, neonics. After taking many hours of testimony on the subject, we advanced a bill that does not go as far as banning neonics, but does require the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to promulgate rules based on the recommendation of the Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB). Included in the recommendation will be best management practices for the “use of treated article seeds in the State. In developing the rules with the Agricultural Innovation Board, the Secretary shall address: (A) establishment of threshold levels of pest pressure required prior to use of treated article seeds; (B) availability of nontreated article seeds; (C) economic impact from crop loss as compared to crop yield when treated article seeds are used; (D) relative toxicities of different treated article seeds and effects of treated article seeds on human health and the environment; (E) surveillance and monitoring techniques for in-field pest pressure; (F) ways to reduce pest harborage from conservation tillage practices; and (G) criteria for a system of approval of treated article seeds.”
In implementing the rules, the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets will work with farmers, seed companies, and other relevant parties to ensure that farmers have access to appropriate varieties and amounts of untreated seed or treated seed that has not been treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide. Additionally, the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets is required to monitor managed pollinator (honeybee) health to establish pollinator health benchmarks for Vermont, including the presence of pesticides in hives, mite and disease pressure, mite control methods, the genetic influence on survival, winter survival rate, and forage availability.
The rules will be adopted on or before July 1, 2024. That may seem like a long time but rules, in general take eight to eighteen months to promulgate and the AIB will need to convene and review data in order to make its recommendations. They will also be basing those recommendations on work that will be done this coming summer by Dr. Heather Darby at UVM Extension regarding the crop yield loss, if any, with untreated seed.
The original bill called for a ban and I’m sure people who are aware of this topic will wonder why we didn’t take that step. There are many reasons and what follows are just a few of them. Farmers have already ordered seed for the next growing season and would not be able to acquire untreated seed on such short notice. Without “scouting” to determine what the pest pressure is, it’s impossible to tell if untreated seed, which would have had to have been ordered last August/September, would work without significant crop loss. If there was crop loss, farmers would be forced to purchase corn from out of state, which would result in the importation of phosphorus to Vermont, which is the last thing we want, especially regarding the Lake Champlain watershed. The original bill cited studies that have been done elsewhere that were primarily feeding studies of bees, not field studies.
Sampling and testing of hives done in Vermont does not indicate a nexus between the use of neonics and the loss of hives. Additionally, there is concern that if we ban neonics, farmers will revert to using older pesticides such as organophosphates that are not only dangerous to pollinators, but also to mammals. If there is any good news on the pesticide front, it’s that the amount of active ingredients in seed coatings has decreased in recent years.
H.626 went to Appropriations because the work involved will require the hiring of two employees to do the work. There are position vacancies and revenue to fund the positions so we are optimistic that Approps will give the green light to our bill. If so, we will be the first state in the nation to have such a program.
Our other bill is H.704, where we combined two separate bills. One was H.610, which relates to the mitigation of prime ag soil at state airports and the other includes Sections 16 and 17 of H.581, which was developed by the Rural Economic Development Working Group, to clarify and incentivize Accessory On-Farm Businesses (AOFB).
As smaller dairy farms go out of business due to poor milk prices, we want the farmland to be used productively. Farmers are diversifying and, in some cases, need to produce different crops with value-added opportunities. Sections 16 and 17 would allow for the development of one acre on a farm with specific requirements without having to go through the Act 250 process. If the AOFB was successful and grew so that an expansion was necessary, they would have to obtain an Act 250 permit.
H.610, now part of H.704, would waive the mitigation fee for prime ag soils at state airports. This was an interesting discussion for us as we learned about the fact that our state airports are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and, as such, will never be used for agriculture again. In part, this is because birds and other wildlife are not wanted around airports and, since 911 have been completely fenced in for security reasons. All activities at the airport must be aviation related.
At the Highgate airport, there is an opportunity for an aviation-related development that could result in many jobs and economic prosperity for the region. Not having to pay for mitigation would be a gesture and incentive for that development to take place. After much discussion, our committee decided that it would be a good investment and that the bill should move forward in a timely manner because if we don’t act quickly, the developer could possibly turn their focus across Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, New York. We passed H.704 unanimously and it is off to Ways and Means.