New farm rules spur complaints

Posted
WESTMINSTER — It's been nearly a year since Vermont rolled out new agricultural rules aimed at improving water quality throughout the state.

But policymakers are still getting an earful from frustrated farmers.

That was in evidence Monday afternoon in Westminster, where state Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets Anson Tebbetts heard from farmers who said they were surprised by the recent imposition of new schedules for fertilization and planting cover crops.

"I think the people that make the laws need to hear this stuff," said Shawn Goodell, whose family owns Westminster Farms on Route 5. "They need to know that when they make a law, it's going to have an effect on somebody."

In response to such concerns, Tebbetts said he'll consider whether there might be a way to factor geographical and agricultural differences into the state's regulations.

"I'll go back and look and see if there is any way we be more flexible here as opposed to somewhere else," he said. "I can't promise anything right now, but I certainly will look at it, because it brings up some interesting points."

Tebbetts' conversation with local farmers covered a lot of ground, but the ramifications of new agricultural regulations drew the most comments from those gathered in a small office at Westminster Farms.

Act 64, a wide-ranging water quality bill approved by the state Legislature in 2015, gave rise to what the state calls "required agricultural practices" that took effect in December 2016.

Tebbetts said farms of all sizes are subject to the new rules.

"It's probably the biggest change in environmental regulation that farmers have faced," he said. "So some of it is very new."

Even before the regulations were finalized, state officials heard criticism about their potential impact. That trend continued at the Westminster meeting, where some farmers directed their ire at a rule that hastens deadlines for manure spreading on land that's been labeled "frequently flooded."

Goodell, who operates Westminster Farms along with his father Clayton and his brother Jason, said the family received a state letter in August saying roughly two-thirds of their cropland was frequently flooded. That meant manure spreading had to stop on Oct. 16, two months sooner than the old deadline.

Clayton Goodell said the letter was a "bombshell" that could have a big impact on farm operations. The family has filed a grievance with the state.

"When they move it up two months, there wasn't time enough to get the crops harvested," he said.

He and other farmers questioned the basis for "frequently flooded" designations, and they objected to one set of regulatory dates being imposed on the entire state. One farmer attending the Westminster meeting said there are "two different worlds" of farming in southern Vermont versus northern Vermont.

Another sore spot is a new mid-October deadline for planting off-season "cover crops" on frequently flooded land. Some farmers fear that the rule will diminish yields by requiring an earlier harvest than is necessary in southern Vermont.

"We would like to see the state divided into different areas or zones to accommodate the differing climates within the state, thus allowing us in the southern part of the state an extended time to plant the cover crop and spread manure," Jill Garland, Clayton Goodell's sister, wrote in testimony prepared for Tebbetts' visit.

Tebbetts said he would consider whether there could be some regulatory flexibility based on such factors.

He also said the state might be able to improve technical assistance and education in order to lessen the impact of new regulations. That would be good news for Shawn Goodell.

"Every farmer wants to be a good steward of the land. We all want to do things right," Goodell said. "But we need time. We need education. There's a lot of stuff that goes into that."

State Reps. Mike Mrowicki and David Deen, both Democrats representing the Windham-4 District, also were in the audience. Mrowicki urged more farmers to raise their voices on regulatory issues.

"If you don't speak up, we can't know what you need," he said.

Farmers spoke up on a variety of other issues at the Westminster meeting, including:

- Dairy farms are continuing to struggle with low milk prices. Garland pointed out that milk prices paid to farmers were lower last year than they were in 2001, even as costs like fuel, feed and labor continue to rise.

Tebbetts said he has convened a Vermont Milk Commission that is expected to issue a report in January.

The commission's mission is to "review and evaluate proposals that enhance and stabilize the dairy industry in Vermont and New England." Tebbetts noted that federal lawmakers are supposed to draft a new farm bill next year.

"We're trying to gather as much testimony as we can to submit to the (Vermont congressional) delegation and also to Congress," Tebbetts said. "If you do have ideas that you think might help, we're open for bold, experimental anything you want to do."

- Several farmers talked about the importance of the state's "current use" tax policy, which aims to preserve farm and forest land by setting a value based on those uses rather than the land's market value.

Tebbetts assured meeting attendees that he'd heard of no current effort to change that law.

- There is an effort underway to update Act 250, the state's land-use statute.

A legislative committee is questioning a longtime Act 250 exemption for farmers, and Tebbetts said he's been asked to report to the panel on that issue as it relates to water quality. He said he's still looking into the matter.

Deen, who sits on the Act 250 legislative committee, said the panel won't be issuing a report until December 2018 and will seek public comment.

"You have time," Deen told farmers at Monday's meeting. "There will be hearings around the state."

- Garland warned of the cumulative impact of fees associated with state agricultural programs, and Tebbetts said there were no new fees imposed this year under the administration of Gov. Phil Scott.

"We're going to try to hold the line again this (legislative) session," he said. "Certainly, in the agriculture agency, we have no proposed new fees at all."

- There also were some complaints about solar-power development on farmland, but Tebbetts said his agency has little to do with that issue.

He said there is a state effort to encourage solar developers to "put them in places where there's not" productive farmland.

Mike Faher reports for the Brattleboro Reformer and VTDigger. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions