Monday April 29, 2013

This week, I will focus on some updates, current activity, and what will be coming as we wind down the Session.

The good news for the small schools in our area is that the provision phasing out and eventually eliminating the Small Schools grants was removed from H.538, the act making miscellaneous amendments to education funding laws. This would have had a profound effect on small schools over the next several years starting in FY2016.

There seems to be a general sense that we need to have a larger conversation about schools, in general, small and extra-large alike; the education they provide, including outcomes for children; the way we fund them; and the value they offer to the Vermont community. We spend a huge amount of money, $1.2 billion per year, on educating our children and we want to make sure we are getting the best value for our investment.

This week, the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee passed out a bill that will make it legal to cultivate hemp in Vermont. While a relative of the marijuana plant, hemp has very low (0.3 percent) delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration levels. Hemp is being grown in Canada, China, and many other countries and has countless uses including high-strength fiber, textiles, clothing, biofuel, paper products, protein-rich food containing essential fatty acids and amino acids, biodegradable plastics, resins, nontoxic medicinal and cosmetic products, construction materials, rope, livestock feed and bedding, and value-added crafts. Unfortunately, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers it to be the same as marijuana and it is illegal to grow according to the federal government.

Over the years, Vermont has passed hemp legislation that would make it legal to grow once the federal government lifts the ban on growing. S.157 takes this another step forward and also sends a message to the federal government that we are missing the boat on an economic agricultural development opportunity. There is no doubt that there will be a risk to farmers if they grow it, though one would hope that the DEA has more important things to do than busting someone for growing hemp.

Forfeiture of property and loss of federal loans and other agricultural programs might be the result, if a farmer was discovered growing hemp. Despite this, there are farmers who testified that they would be willing to take the risk and civilly disobey to make the point and promote the cultivation of this extremely useful and valuable crop. An interesting fact that we discovered during testimony is that the Fairbanks platform scale was invented in the early 1800s in St. Johnsbury in order to weigh the huge quantities of hemp that were being grown here at that time!

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the problem of persistent herbicides in compost and what was being done about it. As a follow up, Tom Moreau of the Champlain Solid Waste District contacted me to let me know that while it was thought by some to be true, it is probably not accurate to say that the slower, low temperature method for composting is the reason some composters have not had problems with the herbicide, aminopyralid. They were most likely just fortunate not to have taken any contaminated horse manure. In fact, it is very clear that lowering the temperature has no impact on the decay rate of aminopyralid in compost.

Home gardeners should be careful not to compost with horse manure or grass clippings where aminopyralid was used. Aminopyralid, sold as Milestone and Opensight, is used on hay crops and lawns to kill broadleaf weeds. It survives the trip through the horse's digestive system (without apparent harm to the horse) and remains dangerous in the manure at concentrations of 1 part per billion. It is also important to know that water or wood chips that come in contact with contaminated manure will retain it. Sunlight seems to be the most effective decaying agent.

Another concern for composters is the fact that aminopyralid, used also on wheat crops, shows up in food scraps containing wheat. As we attempt to compost more of our organic waste, we need to be aware of this.

The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets has worked extremely hard with the composters to get to the bottom of what was a mystery for a while. Dow chemical has also been very cooperative and has offered laboratory help.

Next week, we will be taking up Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life, also known as Death with Dignity. The House Human Services and Judiciary Committees have restored many of the safeguards that were originally in the bill. Debate is bound to be lengthy.

It is also expected that H.112, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, will be voted out of the House Judiciary Committee and go the Floor of the House for debate. This is very important to an overwhelming majority of Vermonters who, for health, cultural, religious, and environmental reasons, want their food to be labeled so they know if it has been produced with genetic engineering.

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