Much of the work of the legislature is carried out in committees.  Here issues are studied, policy is formed, and legislation is drafted to implement those policies.  Committees often spend much time preparing bills and listening to testimony before presenting proposed new legislation to the full House of Representatives.

I serve on the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products.  This committee considers matters relating to agriculture, farms, forest-based products, and their markets.

The Agriculture and Forest Products Committee works on numerous bills during each legislative session.   Important issues were addressed by the committee during the 2015-16 legislative biennium, including:

Protecting Pollinators

The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee moved important legislation forward that will help to protect our pollinators.  First, we established a task force to investigate the causes of pollinator decline and to propose recommendations to the legislature in the form of a pollinator protection plan.  Next, we empowered our pesticide regulators to act when the Pesticide Advisory Council determines that items treated with the pesticide most commonly implicated in pollinator decline is shown to have harmful effects on the environment.  There is already ample evidence that neonicotinoid-treated seeds and other treated items are partially to blame for the decline of bees nationwide, so we anticipate that the scientific evidence will compel the experts to make appropriate recommendations for mitigating the harm that results from the use of this pesticide.

 

Required Agricultural Practices - Act 64 (An act relating to improving the quality of State waters)



Vermont began a long process in 2015 of improving the quality of our state’s waterways. Rethinking and revising our forestry and farming practices are an important part of this work. In October, the Agency of Agriculture released a draft of the new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), sparking thoughtful conversations about how best to improve the health and productivity of our soil and water. Small farmers, in particular, are engaged and working to ensure that the new rules recognize that regenerative agricultural practices are the most sustainable approach to striking this balance.

Developing the RAPs presents an opportunity for farmers to participate in the process as we work to improve water quality in Vermont. Farmers will have access to technical and financial assistance, incentives, and other types of support as they come into compliance with water quality standards.

 

Agricultural Exemptions from Sales and Use Tax

Under previous law, farmers were required to establish that they used agricultural equipment at least 96% of the time for agricultural purposes in order to claim an exemption from Vermont sales and use tax. Such purposes did not include many routine tasks that are critical to farm operations, such as plowing snow so that milk trucks can access the bulk tanks and so that feed deliveries can be made. Retailers caught in a Tax Department audit occasionally owed sales tax that "should have been collected" on equipment whose main purpose was clearly agricultural. This year, the legislature adopted a more sensible definition so that a farmer can claim the exemption if they use the equipment predominantly for agriculture, defined as 75% of the time. We also provided a more comprehensive list of items that are not taxable if purchased for agricultural use.

 

Supporting Safe On-Farm Slaughter

In 2013, Vermont passed a law permitting farmers to sell up to 3 cattle, 10 pigs, or 25 goats or sheep, as live animals, and allow them to be slaughtered on the farm where they were raised. With the law poised to sunset in July 2016, the General Assembly reviewed the policy, opting to expand the number of animals permitted and revise some of the regulatory requirements. Current reports show that the state’s interest in keeping food safe has been upheld under the law. In an attempt to move unreported slaughter and meat sales out of the black market, the legislature:

        Increased the number of animals that can be sold per year/per farm to:

                        5 cattle (up from 3)

                        15 swine (up from 10

                        40 sheep or goats (up from 25)

                        or any combination of these animals up to 6,000 pounds live weight (up from 3,500)

       Reduced reporting requirement for farmers from monthly to quarterly

       Required the Agency of Agriculture, in consultation with stakeholder groups like Rural Vermont, to engage in more education and outreach to farmers about the law

       Required that farmers who intend to use the on-farm slaughter law register with the Agency annually (no fee)

       Clarified the existing authority that the Agency has to fine or suspend operations of a farm that fails to comply with the law.

The law was extended for another three years.

 

Rozo McLaughlin Farm-to-School Program

The Rozo McLaughlin Farm-to-School Program is now in its tenth year. Farm to School grant funding enables Vermont schools to participate in their local food system by incorporating local food and farm education into their cafeterias, classrooms, and communities. Farm-to-School inspires agricultural literacy, promotes healthy food choices, and creates economic development opportunities for farmers.

This year, we continued the Farm-to-School program, including the universal meals program to provide more free or reduced-price meals to Vermont students in over 50 underserved schools around the state. This program ensures that:

        Students are no longer segregated by income – all students receive free meals.

        Stigma in the cafeteria is eliminated.

        Families do not need to turn in school meal applications and schools no longer need to distribute, collect, and process school meal applications.

        Administrators don’t have to spend valuable time and social capital with parents chasing school meal debts.

        More students eat nutritious complete school meals.


Two bills passed by the committee in previous years have been of particular interest to Vermonters: 

Vermont’s Working Landscape

Vermonters overwhelmingly identify the working landscape as one of the aspects of our state that they value most. According to the Vermont Council on Rural Development, over 97% of Vermonters believe that our working landscape is key to our future. Our working farms, bountiful forests, and value-added products hold tremendous opportunity for job creation and rural revitalization.  We are in the midst of an agricultural renaissance that is sparking new economic growth and shaping our legacy for future generations.  Our successes have been due to the efforts of skilled and dedicated farmers, creative entrepreneurs, and the strategic investment of private and public funds.

Recognizing that Vermont’s most reliable assets are our people, our natural resources and our brand, the Working Lands bill will stimulate economic development, encouraging entrepreneurism and job creation in agriculture and in Vermont's forest products industry.   The Agriculture Development Board established in 2010 will now also set policy for the forest industry.  A new group, the Working Landscapes Enterprise Board, will implement the policy, making determinations on funding and resources for those who want to start up, expand, or branch out in agriculture and forestry.  The board will consider enterprise grants, infrastructure investments, capital for a business’s growth phase, and business planning and startup help, as well as wraparound services, technical assistance, and financial packaging. Available funds may be leveraged through private funders and foundations.

This is a transformational piece of legislation that can help insure that Vermont still has vibrant agricultural and forest activity in 20 years.


Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food

Vermonters care about food and care about choice.  Today 80% of all packaged foods sold in this country are products of genetic engineering, yet it is extremely difficult for Vermonters to make informed choices about these products because they are not labeled, or are mislabeled as “natural.”  This is a concern to many Vermonters and the impetus for the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Labeling bill.

Enacting Vermont's law requiring labeling of genetically engineered food in 2014 has resulted in significant changes across the nation.  Major food producers are now labeling their products.  The action and testimony taken by my committee laid out a legally defensible case for a statewide labeling requirement of foods produce through genetic engineering. Most importantly, a record was established to prove Vermont’s “legitimate state interest” for enactment of these requirements. Based on testimony from dozens of expert witnesses, there is genuine cause for concern regarding the public health and environmental consequences of genetic engineering. Furthermore, reputable polling conducted by the University of Vermont indicates that nearly 97% of Vermonters favor labeling. There is increasing public concern around this issue nationwide with numerous other states pursuing similar legislation.  It is unfortunate that the Congress has enacted a law that supersedes Vermont's labeling law.  Hopefully market forces across our country will achieve what our legislative process has failed to do.



Current schedule meetings and hearings of Committees

For a discussion of the work of other Committees, please click here


Vermont without farms could be a good place…but it could never be Vermont; and while there are lots of good places, there is only one Vermont.  – Frank and Melissa Byran

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