This week, it was obvious that the end of the legislative session is drawing near. There was a little bit of the “hurry up and wait” aspect to what we were doing.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee was able to get the two bills the Senate Agriculture Committee sent us, S.188 and S.258, amended and heading back their way. We did end up including language on S.188, an act relating to regulating licensed small cannabis cultivation as farming, that brings the Hemp Program under the authority of the Cannabis Control Board. This made sense for several reasons and will ultimately streamline the work around inspections and consumer safety. It is now in House Ways and Means for consideration.
S.258, an act relating to agricultural water quality, enforcement, and dairy farming, is the Senate’s half of the Housekeeping Bill. We amended it with language that updates and clarifies the activities that are associated with farming and agriculture and is cross referenced in Title 12’s Right to Farm language. It was reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee, which made some good changes, and is now in House Appropriations.
As we worked on H.258 and considered the Right to Farm updates and clarifications, I thought about the changes that have happened in agriculture since I took office in 1999. When I was first assigned to the Agriculture Committee, said that I was a farmer, and was happy to be there, I was asked how many head that I milked. It was not particularly welcoming because I am a sheep and goat farmer, and while I did milk goats for many years, my main crop was/is fiber for yarn and lamb.
Over the last 24 years, 20 of which I’ve served on the Agriculture, and now, Forestry Committee, we have seen dramatic changes in agriculture. The loss of hundreds of dairy farms, mostly small and medium sized farms, due to poor milk prices has been frustrating because we have no control over the pricing system, which is done at the federal level. At the same time, we’ve seen an amazing increase in diversification with a strong focus on beef, fruit, and vegetables, but also including all sorts of innovative things as unusual as saffron production and edible insect (cricket) farming. A lot has changed in the last two decades.
I was on the Agriculture Committee when we did the Farm to School Bill; that has brought more fresh, local products into our school meals and snacks so that our children are better nourished, gain a love for healthier food, and learn more effectively because their tummies are full. As a result, our education tax dollars are better spent, and more money goes into our local farmers’ pockets.
In addition, the incredible work of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) regarding the Farm to Plate Initiative and its recent update has been a model for studying in detail all of the elements of our food system. It has provided a roadmap and indicator for what we should do to incentivize various aspects of that system to increase productivity, create jobs, and bring more revenue to our farmers and the state.
The Working Lands Enterprise Initiative is the icing on the cake in that it provides a chunk of money each year, depending on how much we can afford, to make important and significant investments in our food and forest systems guided by what Farm to Plate has revealed. All 14 Vermont counties have benefitted, especially our rural areas, which need our attention.
Recent conversations have turned to food security, given what we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of food shortages and empty shelves. How can we provide more of our own food in New England? What are the bottlenecks and pinch points? How much land would be required to provide even a percentage of our diets? What would those diets look like? These are all questions being investigated by a group known as New England Feeding New England. Our representative to that group is Ellen Kahler, the executive director of VSJF, who fills us in on the progress they are making.
Our latest work is the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap, which is now a part of H.703, the Workforce Development Bill. It is meant to do the same thing for forestry and the forest products industry as Farm to Plate did for the agricultural sector. We are waiting to see if it makes it through the legislative process with the money needed to do the work.
I have had the chance to work with many amazing people over my 24-year career in the Vermont Legislature as we have tried to navigate the transition from a much more robust dairy farming culture to more diversified agriculture. Dairy farms have consolidated, and the trend is for larger farms to be more successful, but we value highly the small and medium farms that are making it. The thing about farmers, in general, is that they are resilient and hard working and they feed us. They also keep the land open, which is a great attraction for visitors to the state.
I’ve often said, people don’t come to Vermont to look at the subdivisions in Williston and South Burlington (no offense, Williston and South Burlington). Visitors come to enjoy the beauty of our working lands and farmers and foresters/loggers are a big part of keeping Vermont looking that way.
I am proud of all we have done and know that there is more to do, but it is time for me to direct my energy elsewhere. For that reason, I will not be running in the next election. I have been thinking about this for the last several years but with the turnover of my district mates, I haven’t wanted to leave the Windham-3 district without an experienced legislator.
I have been humbled by the trust my constituents have placed in me and thank you all for that honor. Coming from one of the smallest towns in the district, I have always been honored by the opportunity to serve.
Redistricting has placed Windham, along with Grafton and Athens, in a new district with Chester and while I love Chester and, in fact, lived there in the early 1970s, I am happy to say that there is a wonderful woman, Heather Chase, who is interested in running. Heather ticks all the boxes in terms of community service, as well as business experience. I feel confident that, if elected, she will do a fabulous job.
As for me, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to serve in the Vermont Legislature. I have made many friends, with whom I will continue to maintain friendships. I have had the chance to work with wonderful committee members from all over the state. I’ve asked them to leave their politics at the door so that we can do good work for Vermonters, and they have. The sense of comradery is strong in our committee and that is gratifying.
For the 14 years I have chaired House Agriculture and Forestry, our committee assistant has been Linda Leehman, for whom I have deep affection – she sometimes seems to read my mind. Our Legislative Counselor has been Michael O’Grady, who is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, with an encyclopedic memory of statute that never ceases to amaze me. There are many people whom I’d like to acknowledge but there isn’t enough room here to name them all.
Appreciation and thanks have to go to my family as well. No one serves in the Legislature without a strong support system. To my husband, Alan, who holds down the fort by keeping the home fires burning and the barn animals fed all winter — I couldn’t have done it without you. To my children, Mathias, Tyler, and Ben, who was 10 when I started — thank you for pulling more than your weight.
I am sincerely looking forward to being more centered around our home as Alan and I get older and being more available to my sons, their wives, and my grandchildren, Ada, Silas, and Maddie. I also have a dream to do more traveling, including a road trip to the Four Corners area, Canyon de Chelly, Shiprock, and Mesa Verde. As a strong believer in lifelong learning and active aging, I look forward to many new adventures.
Thank you all for the privilege of serving you and all of the people of Vermont. Together, we govern!