Tuesday, March 17
Last week this column focused on some of the challenges and hard choices we are facing as part of the budget process, focusing primarily on the Agency of Agriculture. On Thursday, I traveled to Montpelier to talk about cuts that have been proposed by the governor and how we might avoid them by finding revenue sources.

The governor has proposed eliminating an additional 12 positions from the Agency of Agriculture -- 11 of which are in the Food Safety Division. The proposal would do away with the state meat inspection program, two of our dairy inspectors, two animal health field workers and one of the two deputy secretaries.

As was mentioned last week, the dairy inspection positions would have to be picked up by the milk cooperatives, which would shift that cost, ultimately, to the dairy farmers who are already struggling and going out of business in alarming numbers. The animal health inspectors are tasked with checking on reports of animal neglect and cruelty, as well as disease surveillance. While these cuts are of great concern, what is most troublesome is essentially the entire elimination of the state meat inspection program.

State-inspected facilities are of the utmost importance to the future of agriculture, food and farming in the state of Vermont. At our recent hearing in Montpelier, a diverse group of 250 farmers attended and of the 94 who testified, many spoke about the importance of facilities that can process meat for sale in the state. As dairy farmers struggle to keep their heads above water, this becomes even more important if we want to maintain a healthy, working landscape.

For example, one state-inspected slaughter/processing plant in the northern part of Vermont has approximately 100 private label accounts. This means that 100 individual farmers are able to market their products anywhere in the state. If we eliminate the program, will the owner of this facility make the effort to become USDA inspected? Probably not, because previously, he was federally inspected, found the experience cumbersome and chose to go back to state inspection. If he closes, where would that leave these farmers?

The governor is, perhaps, relying on the idea that the USDA will take up the slack but that notion is not borne out by the experience in other states. New Hampshire gave up its state inspection program in 1977. At the time, it had 11 slaughter facilities -- it now has one and is looking into starting the program again. Five years ago, Maine started its program again, modeling it after Vermont statutes. The number of plants has grown in Maine from 6 to13.

A state inspection program is critical to a vibrant agricultural economy in Vermont and is cost effective. The Vermont meat inspection program costs approximately $950,000 per year but only $350,000 is state money, the rest comes from the federal government. Every federally inspected plant in Vermont started as a state-inspected plant and built their business before they switched. The state is customer friendly -- the USDA process is not as personally helpful.

The need for slaughter/processing facilities is tremendous. Several business people are interested in starting state inspected plants in the near future, which would help farmers, as well as create jobs at a time when we really need them. One can only guess what effect the elimination of this program would have on their plans.

For Vermonters who are concerned about the future of agriculture, job creation, the "localvore" movement, our carbon footprint, and food safety, I highly recommend you contact the governor's office at 802-828-3333 and the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets at 802-828-2430 and let them know how you feel.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.