It was a very busy week in Montpelier with a couple of work-related extra-curricular activities thrown in. The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) attended several events at the annual Vermont Farm Show held at the Champlain Valley Exposition Center in Essex Junction.
On Wednesday evening, we fielded a team at the Capital Cook-off. This is an Iron Chef-like competition amongst the HAFPC, the Senate Agriculture Committee, and The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. It takes place in the same space as Vendor night where local producers of fresh vegetables, meat, fiber, and other value-added products sell their wares. It was fantastic to see my friend from Newfane, Nancy Stefanik, there with her Vermont Quince products (www.vermontquince.com). Rachel and Andy Ware of AlpineGlo Farm in North Westminster (www.vthorseshoer.com) were there with their goat's milk products, including delicious Cajeta, a goat's milk caramel sauce. They also sell goat's milk, chicken, and pork; Andy is an experienced farrier.
The goal of the Cook-off is to focus attention on our wonderful local products and to promote their use. We are all provided with a bag of local veggies and meat and have access to a table of other ingredients. We then have one hour to produce a plate of food that is judged by a panel of chefs and food critics. I am happy to report that despite the fact that our hot plates kept blowing the circuits and we didn't have cooking surfaces for the first 25 minutes, the HAFPC team won again.
To the greatest extent, this was due to one team member, Windham County's own, Rep Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro, who truly does have a magic touch with food. Tristan, in his "real" life, among other things, is a chef and owner of Entera Catering and Rigani Catered Wood-Fired Pizza. A great time was had by all and our team got to take home the coveted Capital Cook-off Plate, which is displayed on a shelf in our committee room.
On Thursday, our entire committee went to the Farm Show where we attended the Dairy Meeting, which provided a briefing on the current state of dairy in Vermont. You may remember that in the recent past, milk prices have fallen to below the cost of actually producing milk. It was generally acknowledged that this was unsustainable and that some sort of plan was necessary if dairy farming was going to survive in Vermont. The good news is that milk prices are up for the time being. The demand for milk products overseas and the Greek yogurt craze locally has made for a much more favorable climate for dairy farmers.
Congressman Peter Welch was at the Dairy Meeting to report that the U.S. House has finally passed a Farm Bill. We were all eager to hear what had been decided regarding dairy and the nutrition programs. The Farm Bill creates a Margin Protection program. It's not what we wanted but it is better than nothing. The nutrition programs were cut but not as badly as first feared. It was really good to see Grafton friends, Richard and Martha Desrochers, at the lunch, as well as Wilmington dairy farmer, Rob Wheeler.
A major issue our committee has been working on is water quality, in particular the effect it will have on small farms. On Feb. 6, our committee will be holding hearings in Bridport and St. Albans to hear from farmers regarding the proposals made in H.586. We will also hold a hearing in Montpelier in the House Chamber on the evening of Feb. 13. For complete details, please go to www.leg.state.vt.us and click on the press release under "Highlights".
The House passed a bill that lifts the cap on the amount of excess electricity that customers with residential solar or other renewable energy sources can sell back into the grid. This is known as net metering. In 2002, Vermont's net metering plan was created but there was concern about the effect this might have on the electricity companies, so we started with a 1 percent cap. That meant that the companies were limited to the amount of renewable energy they could buy - 1 percent of their total portfolio.
The plan worked well and over time we have increased the cap to 4 percent but several of the smaller companies (Hardwick Electric Company, Vermont Electric Co-op, and Washington Electric) have hit the cap and our largest utility, Green Mountain Power is getting close. Because we have an ambitious goal to produce 90 percent of our power from renewable sources (especially solar) by 2050, we want to encourage investment in renewable energy. Our bill lifts the cap to 15 percent, a nearly four-fold increase, but one that indicates our commitment to reducing the use of fossil fuels and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of renewable power being generated in Vermont has increased from 18 megawatts in 2011 to 38 megawatts currently. My neighbors have a solar array and now zero out their electricity bill if the sun is shining!
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.