It was an interesting contrast to witness the horrifying events in Washington, D.C., on January 6 juxtaposed against what was happening in Montpelier that same day as Vermont legislators were freshly sworn in and settling into their new committees. In fact, work had already begun in December on a bill that would make 2021’s Town Meetings safer.
On Tuesday, we worked on and quickly passed H.48, a bill relating to alternative procedures for Town Meetings and local elections in response to COVID-19. It should be stressed that this bill does not mandate anything but is permissive in nature.
The “Town Meeting” bill was developed in response to municipal leaders around the state with concerns for the safety of Vermonters due to the pandemic. The last thing we want is to create super-spreader events statewide just as the vaccine is being made available to our citizens. It is also important, however, that municipal and school district budgets get passed and that elections occur for the various board members who help make things work. In order to make this possible, changes needed to be made to annual meeting procedures that allow for increased flexibility.
Testimony was taken and work done by both the House and Senate Government Operations Committees in conjunction with the Secretary of State’s office, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Associations, School Boards’ and Superintendents’ Associations, and Legislative Counsel. The result is a bill that authorizes alternative procedures for our 2021 Town Meetings. Included in the process was input the Secretary of State’s office had with Vermont Town Clerks and Select Board members. It should be noted that we are fortunate to have our own Senator Jeanette White as Chair of Senate Government Operations and Rep. John Gannon of Wilmington as Vice Chair of the corresponding House committee.
What exactly does the bill do? It authorizes municipalities to move the date of their 2021 annual Town Meeting and to mail Australian ballots for use for that Town Meeting. It specifies that for towns with charters, the terms of elected board members will continue until a successor is chosen. It also permits the Secretary of State to issue supplemental elections procedures to protect the health and safety of voters, elections workers, and candidates. More specific to the Windham County area, it allows Brattleboro to hold its representative town meeting virtually.
While I will miss visiting Town Meetings in Brookline, Athens, Grafton, Rockingham, Westminster, and Windham, avoiding contact with others just makes sense. Many folks in Windham will especially miss the potluck lunch but know it’s for the best!
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee continued with orientation introducing new members to many of the movers and shakers in the agriculture and forestry sectors. One of my favorite things is to have farmers and foresters, people with boots on the ground, in to hear how things are going. Several of us on committee are farmers but it is always good to hear different perspectives.
We were fortunate to have three young women from, or with ties to, Windham County. Abbie Corse is no stranger to our committee and has testified before. Abbie grew up on the Corse Family Farm (www.corsefarmdairy.com) in Whitingham, ten minutes from the Massachusetts border. She and her parents have 300 conserved acres, steward an additional 200 acres, and are milking 54 cows.
Abbie posed some challenging questions to us. If Vermont values it farms and farmers and wants young people to live in Vermont, what is Vermont willing to do for them? She talked about when she was a child on the farm how she could walk two minutes to the school bus stop and be picked up and taken to school. Now she has to drive her children to school, which involves a 40-minute round-trip twice a day, taking a chunk out of her workday. To be clear, she was not complaining but rather pointing out the realities of her life. I would also add that this is one of the issues that I have with Act 46. Despite the stated intention to not close small community schools, that is exactly what is happening around the state.
We were also fortunate to hear from Ashlyn Bristle of Rebop Farm (www.rebopfarm.com) in Brattleboro. She farms 32 acres in Brattleboro with her partner, Abraham McClurg, and produces farm fresh, raw milk and diversified livestock/meat products. They have also had concerts in the past but that was put on hold due to the pandemic.
Norah Lake, who grew up in Grafton and whose grandmother, Joan, and father, Tracy, still live there, now lives and farms in Norwich at Sweetland Farm (www.sweetlandfarmvt.com). Her focus is on diversified vegetables and pastured meat and sells Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.
We heard from another farmer, Suzanne Long, owner of Luna Bleu Farm (www.lunableufarm.org) in S. Royalton, who also sells CSA shares. She and her partner, Tim Stanford, focus on vegetables and livestock and poultry. Her daughter is taking over the livestock portion of the business and calling it Flying Dog Farm.
One of our purposes in hearing from these farmers was to hear how they are faring given the pandemic. Abbie’s dairy is actually doing fairly well because it is organic, and their milk price has remained somewhat stable. But she, like many farmers, was affected by the drought and was not able to produce enough forage material to sell to others so they saw a significant loss in income there.
Ashlyn, Norah, and Suzanne all spoke about how their direct-to-consumer sales, whether though CSAs, farmers’ markets, or on-farm sales, had increased dramatically although it required extremely hard, unrelenting work. One farmer said she had only had one half day off in several months. Investments in infrastructure had to be made to keep up with the increased business and their hope was that that increase would continue in order to justify those investments.
Norah said that they had to make adjustments to their business practices and, for instance, fearing shortages, buy $10,000 in boxes at the beginning of their sold-out CSA season to package their product. In order to keep workers safe, she and her husband created a “pod” for their workers and housed them on the farm.
These farmers are our future and a vital part of our dream to keep young people in Vermont and create a regional food supply system. We should be looking for ways to make their lives more successful and a little less stressful.
What I like about having farmers testify in committee is that they are candid and tell it like it is. In response to a question about the challenges of being a farmer and a mother, Abbie admitted, “I just stepped away from this meeting to wipe my six-year-old’s butt … ’cause this is real.”