It’s Wednesday, the energy level is ratcheted up, and the word is if you want something to make it through the process, you need to get it done. So that’s what we, in House Ag and Forestry, did. H.525, an act relating to miscellaneous agricultural subjects, and S.160, an act relating to agricultural and forestry development, were finalized.
Both bills went to Committees of Conference, which is the process by which a compromise is reached between the House and Senate positions. The House bill conferences are chaired by the Senate and the Senate conferences are chaired by the House and one of the biggest challenges is finding a time and a place to meet when all the necessary people can be there. It can be an interesting spectator sport to watch as both sets of conferees offer proposals and counter proposals in order to reach a resolution.
Before the Legislative Session began, I wrote up a scope of work for the Agriculture and Forestry Committee. In truth it was the first time I had ever put it down on paper. In the past, I had a pretty good mental picture of where I wanted to go but had never committed it to black and white. As I was cleaning up my “debris pile”, otherwise known as my committee desk, I came across it and felt a deep sense of satisfaction as I reviewed it.
First on the list was to establish the importance of agriculture and forestry to the State of Vermont. Besides the billions of dollars that come to the state through dairy and timber sales, there are the externalities that are not at the top of people’s minds. Tourism, for instance, which is also worth billions to the state. Leaf peeping, alone, is worth millions to our revenue stream. Tourists don’t come to Vermont to look at the housing developments in the Chittenden County area, they come to experience the beauty that is provided by the working landscape.
This year, we heard about the bright side of agriculture. The 6,559 net new jobs and 742 net new farm and food-related businesses that have been created over the last seven years thanks to the Farm to Plate Initiative (which we renewed this year) and the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. But we also continue to hear about the dark side and how our dairy farmers are struggling with on-going low milk prices. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this is that there is little we can do to help out because of the federal nature of milk pricing.
The second overarching topic I wanted us to investigate was the future of agriculture and forestry. What do we want our state to look like in 20 years and how can we help shape that? What we learned was that agriculture and forestry can both be part of the solution to the problem of climate change and the cleanup of the waters of the state, in particular, Lake Champlain.
In H.525, we included the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) and the Agricultural Environmental Management Program (AEMP). The VESP focuses on soil health principals that go above and beyond the requirements of the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs). The AEMP will provide financial assistance for the implementation of alternative nutrient reduction practices that improve soil quality, nutrient reduction, and reduce agricultural waste discharges. Both will improve water quality and soil health that will help build organic matter in the soil. This, in turn, sequesters carbon and increases the soil’s ability to retain water making it more resilient to increased extreme rainfall events that we have witnessed in the last 50 years. Increasing the organic matter in the top 6 inches of topsoil by 1% allows an acre of land to hold an additional 27,000 gallons of water.
In S.160, we created a Carbon Forest Sequestration Working Group that will study how to initiate a statewide program to facilitate the enrollment of Vermont forestlands in carbon sequestration programs. Large tracts of land are needed in order to make these projects viable, so we also looked at the concept of aggregating smaller tracts of land into one large project. Our forests could be producing a revenue stream for the state and private landowners while still continuing to be healthy, managed, and harvested.
We also focused on logger safety, which has much larger connotations. Many of us have our land in the Use Value Appraisal, or Current Use, Program. In order to meet the requirements of the program, one must have a forest management plan, which usually require the harvesting of timber or firewood. Loggers are key to that process, but it is a dangerous profession and there are challenges such as high workers’ compensation costs and the fact that timber processing plants have been closing in our region.
We put into place a provision that requires the Commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation to develop a logging operations accident prevention and safety training curriculum. We also require the Commissioner to award a grant to the Vermont Logger Education to Advance Professionalism (LEAP) program to help reduce the cost of the safety training to loggers. This strategy worked in Maine to help bring down the cost of workers’ compensation insurance and we anticipate it will do the same here for a relatively small investment.
We were able to update our Hemp Bill that brings Vermont into compliance with the 2018 federal Farm Bill. This will allow our hemp farmers greater access to seeds and the services they need to be successful. It also changes the fee structure for growers and processors in a scaled way to reflect the amount of work the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets will have to expend to do the required work. The new fees will not go into place until next year.
There is more to cover, and I am out of space for this week so I may continue to write a column for the next week or two. A lot of valuable work was done this year and I am proud of that. The Session ended in a way that I’ve never seen before, but I was glad we adjourned on Friday at a reasonable time rather than the middle of the night.
I will close this column by saying that just because we aren’t in Montpelier doesn’t mean we’re not still serving you. The best way to contact your representatives during the summer and fall is probably by email. Our emails are the same as during the Session with the first letter of our first name, our last name, followed by @leg.state.vt.us. I think I can say on behalf of the entire delegation that it is an honor to serve as your representatives and senators and we are humbled by the trust you place in us. Thank you!