Generally speaking, when "crossover" is passed, things slow down a bit in committee. That is not the case for the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, which has been working on the Water Quality bill, H.586, sent to us by Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources. A large part of it is related to agriculture so we are reviewing those sections.
I think we can all agree we would like Lake Champlain cleaned up. It is very important to our recreation and tourism economy and one of our treasured natural resources. It is estimated that over several years we have spent in the neighborhood of $90 million on the cleanup with little improvement. For that reason, we have to redouble our efforts and think strategically.
There are sections of the lake, Mississquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay, for instance, that are so polluted with phosphorus that potentially deadly blue-green algae blooms are a yearly occurrence. People cannot swim in the lake during these blooms and dogs have actually died from drinking the water.
There are many sources that are polluting the lake including point sources such as wastewater treatment facilities and non-point sources including developed areas with impervious surfaces and the resulting storm water run-off, forests, stream bank erosion, and unpaved roads. We also know that agricultural run-off from cropland and pasture has had a significant impact, especially in certain parts of the lake like the Mississquoi Bay.
H.586 endeavors to address some of the factors that may be contributing to the phosphorus loading of the lake. The goal is to be proactive in light of the Environmental Protection Agency's requirement that we have a plan to address the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which is the allowable amount of phosphorus that can enter the lake. H.586 would require the certification of small farms to assure they are in compliance with Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAP), which are the basis of Vermont's Agricultural Nonpoint Source Water Quality Program. What we found surprising as we took testimony was the fact that so many people who own farm animals have no idea what the AAPs are or that they needed to be following them. It is clear that education and outreach will be very important as we move forward.
For years, large and medium farms have been subject to permitting to make sure they are following the AAP requirements. The large and medium farms are defined by the number of animals on the farm. We found it much harder to come up with a definition for a small farm. There are many variables and depending on conditions and the number of animals on a given amount of acreage, the situation might be fine or problematic. The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets has limited staff and even with an infusion of support as a result of H.586, it would be impossible for every small farm in the state to receive a visit from the Agency. For that reason, we are giving the Agency rulemaking authority with certain parameters to promulgate a definition for what constitutes a small farm so they can focus on the areas that need the most immediate attention.
Work continues on the Education Governance bill. I remain hopeful that the committee will consider a grass-roots public engagement process rather than a top down, mandatory approach.
On Saturday, I had the great pleasure of serving as a judge at the Jr Iron Chef contest at the Champlain Valley Expo Centre in Essex. According to their website, "The mission of Jr Iron Chef is to empower Vermont students to develop healthy eating habits through the use of whole local foods."
When I arrived at 9 a.m., the excitement in the air was palpable. Teams were setting up with help from their coaches and family members. It actually felt a lot like a sporting event with loud, driving music pulsing in the venue. I thought how wonderful it is that cooking, an important skill to master, is getting this much attention. The focus on fresh, local, nutritious foods is another bonus.
Our neck of the woods was well represented by teams from Brattleboro Union High School, Twin Valley Middle and High Schools, Guilford School, Halifax School, Putney Central, Leland and Gray Union MHS, and Green Mountain Union MHS. All of these teams should be congratulated for making the trip to the other end of the state to participate.
Teams were judged on cleanliness, cooperation, teamwork, presentation, taste, creativity, and accessibility. The dishes prepared were excellent and judging was very difficult.
One of the challenges of the local foods movement is that many people don't know how to cook with fresh vegetables, fruit, and other local products, and many folks have gotten accustomed to prepared food. The Jr Iron Chef event has the potential to turn that around.
What is so wonderful about this event is that it has so many benefits. It gives students the opportunity to learn how to cook; work as a team; and be exposed to healthy, delicious local food in a creative setting.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.