The 2021 legislative session started off like no other I have experienced. There was something nice about being able to get dressed in my business clothes in my own home shortly before the gavel fell at 10 a.m. I, however, missed that feeling of awe I get every year as I enter the east side doors of the Statehouse on the first day of the session. It is a feeling of humility and pride, as well as gratitude for the trust my constituents place in me. The Vermont Statehouse is a beautiful building; it is an honor to work there.
Back on March 13, 2020, when the governor issued his State of Emergency order, I think many of us had no idea what we would be in for. We were in uncharted territory and through the steady leadership of our then Speaker, Mitzi Johnson, we were able to resume work via Zoom in April and work through June to get must-have legislation and a partial budget completed. We then resumed work at the end of August and finished on Sept. 25 with a full budget for FY2021.
In June, my committee, House Agriculture and Forestry, worked diligently to get COVID-19 relief money in the form of grants allocated to agriculture and forestry businesses that were struggling due to collapsing markets and low milk prices. After a lot of haggling with the Senate, we settled on $21.2 million for dairy producers, $3.8 million for dairy processors, $5 million for non-dairy agriculture producers, $5 million for the forestry sector, and $192,000 for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board so that their staff could help folks applying for the grants. It then fell to the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to quickly develop the application procedure, which was all done on-line.
If there is any silver lining to this pandemic it is that it has revealed cracks in some of our important, somewhat taken-for-granted systems. One would be our health care system and the real need for all of us to have access to high quality health care. Another, which is of great interest to me, is our food supply chain system. While many of us were focused on toilet paper and cleaning products, there were times when food shelves were empty in grocery stores. We witnessed meat and poultry shortages because so much of our country’s processing is centralized, and when the workers came down with COVID, the entire plant went down.
The question I began to ask myself is what would it take to supply more of our own food in the Northeast, so we aren’t as vulnerable? It turns out that there were others asking the same question and talking with people in other Northeastern states. Research is going on that will inform us on what the needs would be. How many acres of arable land would it take to provide us with what we need to nourish ourselves? How would our diets change, if at all? Questions like these are being looked at and it will be interesting to see if there is anything we can do to advance the concept.
Another topic of conversation that has been going on for awhile is how can agriculture and forestry be part of climate change mitigation? We started talking about this a few years ago but it seems ever more important. I’m delighted that I have been named by our new Speaker of the House, Jill Krowinski, to chair the Agriculture and Forestry Committee again and look forward to looking at this in greater depth.
The benefits of good soil health practices and regenerative agriculture can contribute to carbon sequestration and drought resistance. For instance, a small increase in organic matter in the top several inches of topsoil can significantly increase the amount of rainwater retained after an extreme precipitation event. These weather events have increased in frequency by more than 75 percent over the last 50 years.
We are fortunate that Vermont is more than 70 percent forested and our trees are not only an amazing resource but also offset 46 percent of our emissions. We are looking to see if it makes sense to participate in the California carbon market or pursue some other way to reward landowners for keeping their land forested. By the same token, we are investigating how to reward farmers for using good practices through payments for ecosystem services.
In my mind, this all fits together. It is estimated that farms have been responsible for 41 percent of the pollution in Lake Champlain but they are taking on 67 percent of the clean up because it is cheaper to mitigate agricultural pollution than it is the pollution from development. But farmers feed us and can be part of a regional food supply chain system. Additionally, through changes in their agricultural practices, they can be part of the climate change solution and at the same time improve water quality. Dairy farmers, who have been struggling with ridiculously low milk prices, and others could add more to their bottom lines if they were rewarded for their ecosystem services.
Foresters and loggers are part of the solution too, if good forest management practices are used. They are critical to many of us who are enrolled in the Current Use program but have suffered setbacks before and after the pandemic began. Mills in Maine closed, applying pressure on markets closer to home.
With all the challenges revealed as a result of the pandemic, I prefer to view them as opportunities that we have to improve things in preparation for the future and that of our children and grandchildren.