The 2019 Legislative Session began on Jan. 9, 2019. I probably mention this every year but walking into the State House for the first time fills me with awe. It is a beautiful structure maintained by a very dedicated crew under the direction of Curator David Schutz, who makes sure we have plenty of wonderful art and that the curtains are hung just so. Above and beyond all that, I am reminded of the trust my constituents have placed in me and what an honor it is to serve them and all the people of the State of Vermont.
As expected, Rep. Mitzi Johnson was again elected Speaker of the House. Speaker Johnson and the leadership team worked extremely hard to create committees that are balanced by party, gender, geographic location, and experience with the hope of granting each member one of their top three choices. Committee assignment is, perhaps, the hardest job the Speaker does because it lays the very basic groundwork for committees that will hopefully function well and do good work for Vermonters. One of the greatest challenges this year was assigning nearly 40 new members (more than 26% of the body) evenly amongst the fourteen standing committees.
This biennium Windham County is lucky to have two members serving in House leadership – Emily Long of Newfane and Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro are serving as Assistant Majority Leaders. In the Senate, Becca Balint was elected to serve as Majority Leader again. Additionally, Windham County has three new, energetic House members – Sara Coffey of Guilford, Nader Hashim of Dummerston, and Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro. They will serve on the Corrections and Institutions, Judiciary, and Commerce and Economic Development Committees, respectively. We warmly welcome them to the State House as members of the Windham County delegation.
I am honored, once again, to be serving as the Chair of the Agriculture and Forestry Committee. One of our tasks will be to discuss the importance and future of agriculture in Vermont. Last year there was a certain amount of turmoil and bad feelings toward the agricultural community and dairy farmers, in particular. They were blamed for the situation at Lake Carmi and dairy farmers felt under attack. It was difficult to watch that transpire especially when farmers work incredibly hard for long hours every day 365 days of the year and, oh yes, they help feed us.
After doing research and taking testimony on the Lake Carmi situation, we determined that there were several factors including weather, topography, roads, and development, as well as agriculture contributing to the problem of a cyanobacteria (Blue-green algae) bloom. In fact, 87% of the farm fields in the Lake Carmi watershed were at or below optimal phosphorous levels and the 13% that were above were being managed to bring that number down. Dr. Heather Darby of UVM Extension and many of the Lake Carmi farmers came to the State House to present their results that indicated that many soil health and water quality practices had been put in place to help improve the situation. In this case, science helped clarify the actual reality.
Our discussion will include the importance of agriculture to Vermont. Economically, dairy farming alone accounts for three million dollars a day or over a billion dollars to the state’s economy every year. This does not include other farming and farm-related sectors, some of which have been exploding in recent years.
The Farm to Plate Initiative (F2P) released its newest data and the results are impressive. The original goal of F2P was to double the consumption of Vermont-produced food from 5% to 10% in ten years. It was estimated that if we could achieve that goal, we could create 1,700 jobs and increase economic output. After seven years, working in tandem with the investments made by the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (also a product of the Agriculture and Forestry Committee), the consumption of Vermont-produced food has surpassed the original goal and risen to 12.9%. Job creation has way outstripped estimates with the creation of 6,559 net new jobs and 742 net new farms and businesses.
In addition to the economic aspect there is food security. The ability for us to raise as much of our own food as possible is a real benefit as climate change negatively effects other states and their ability to produce crops. Several years ago, the working landscape was identified by 97% of the Vermonters polled as being key to Vermont’s future. Tourists don’t usually come to Vermont to look at development, they are often coming to escape it and to enjoy open land and beautiful scenery, which includes farm fields and forested acres. Tourism dollars amount to a lot and agriculture should get a lot of credit for enticing out-of-staters to Vermont for a visit.
At the same time, water quality is of the utmost importance. It is estimated that agriculture is responsible for 40% of the problem in the Lake Champlain Watershed but farmers have agreed to shoulder 68% of the clean-up. Why? Because it is significantly cheaper to remediate agricultural areas rather than it is developed ones.
So, what is the future of agriculture in the State of Vermont? That is what I hope to explore with my very capable committee and what I will share with you in my upcoming columns. And I haven’t even written about forestry, which has its own set of opportunities and challenges.
During the Session, I encourage you to reach out to your representatives and senators. Our email addresses consist of the first initial of our first name, our last name, followed by @leg.state.vt.us. For instance, mine is firstname.lastname@example.org. We can also be reached by phone toll-free at 1-800-322-5616. That number connects you with the office of the Sergeant at Arms who will send us a message. I do my best to get back to people within 24 hours but that is not always possible depending on what’s going on. Occasionally messages get lost and I encourage anyone who has not heard back to try again. I also strongly encourage your participation in the legislative process – please remember, together, we govern!