The end of the legislative session is generally marked by a “hurry up and wait” scenario as bills make their way through the House and Senate. The upside to the Zoom world is that during the “wait” periods, instead of being cooped up in committee rooms, I can make good use of time tidying up things like my utility junk drawer. The downside is that workdays can stretch into the double digits in terms of hours. In a recent week, we had a 12-and-a-half hour Zoom day amongst committee, caucus, and floor work.
The other activity that many of us pursue as we wind down the legislative session is the tracking of our committee’s bills as they make their way through the process. This can be done by anyone who has an interest in a particular bill by going to www.legislature.vermont.gov and entering the bill number into the search function at the top of the page. It is important to remember whether it’s an H. or S. (House or Senate) bill.
For instance, H.88 is an act relating to certification of agricultural use for purposes of the use value appraisal program. We worked on it in January and early February, and it then went to the Ways and Means Committee. It was reported on the floor of the House in early March and then went to the Senate where it was referred to the Agriculture Committee where they reported on it favorably with a proposal of amendment and in mid-April it went to the Finance Committee. That’s where it is now, so I checked in with the chair of Finance, who assures me that they will work on it this week. We are hoping that H.88 makes it through the process because it makes a minor change that will allow an additional level of flexibility for the Property Valuation and Review Division regarding the filing of certification documents.
The bill tracking function on the legislative website is extremely helpful and provides incredible transparency and accessibility for legislators and the general public, alike.
Most of our House Agriculture and Forestry bills have crossed the finish line. H.89, which I have written about recently, is now through the Senate and on its way to the governor for his signature. This is the bill that will limit liability for agritourism, which will add a level of protection and potentially lower insurance costs for our farmers who have or are looking to diversify their businesses.
I’ve also written at length about the importance of S.102. As we work hard to keep food scraps/residuals out of the waste stream, the question is, what we do with them? Some of us keep chickens, but not everyone wants or is able to.
One of the solutions, which is already occurring, is to allow compost makers to use food residuals from grocery stores, institutions, and other sources as an agricultural input, which is eaten by chickens that forage on the compost. The chickens, in turn, make eggs, which are sold directly to customers or to local coops, thus adding to the bottom line of the composter. This becomes a multiple win but because food residuals are not considered commercial feed, the question was, who would oversee this practice? The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) because of the chickens or the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) because food residuals are considered solid waste?
S.102 is what I like to refer to as an elegant solution that was worked out between the two agencies. The AAFM will promulgate Accepted Composting Practice rules that will be equal to or better than ANR’s composting rules. Composters who are on a small, certified farm and either include chickens in their practice or use more than 50 percent of the compost produced on their own farm will be under the jurisdiction of the AAFM and will not need an Act 250 permit. There are some additional requirements for those wanting to start up such a composting venture, but not requiring an Act 250 permit makes things a little easier. Given that this has been a thorny issue for several years, we feel a great sense of teamwork and accomplishment having enacted the solution that the agencies have developed. S.102 is on its way to the governor for his signature.
Also, on its way to the governor is H.218, regarding the sale of raw milk. This allows raw (unpasteurized) milk to be sold at farm stands and at CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture). It should be noted that raw milk should be consumed by people who are informed about it and understand the risks. Some folks think it is extremely dangerous, others think it is positively medicinal. Before trying it, you are encouraged to educate yourself and make sure you are buying it from a reputable source.
H.434 is a bill that creates the Agricultural Innovation Board (AIB). This is exciting in that it will take on the tasks of the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council (VPAC) and the Vermont Seed Review Committee, as well as other functions that will tackle areas of concern such as pesticide use and how to reduce it, and the use of agricultural plastic and how to transition to more biodegradable materials.
Vermont is the only state that has a Seed Review Committee that allows for the review of the seed traits of a new genetically engineered seed proposed for sale, distribution, or use in the state. We created this committee last biennium in response to the Dicamba situation in other parts of the country. Dicamba is an herbicide that is used to kill weeds growing in corn and soybean fields. Because it is highly volatile, under certain circumstances it can drift to other farmers’ fields that may not be growing Dicamba-resistant crops, causing devastating crop loss. This has happened in other parts of the country where, for the most part, the crops damaged were annual. While that is terrible, such an event in Vermont could wipe out long-established orchards and hardwood stands. Vermont is also the only state that allows regulation of treated articles such as telephone poles and treated seed. The AIB will continue to perform that function as well as the review of permits that the VPAC has done.
The Senate made some changes to H.434, which we then amended and sent back to them. With luck, they will concur with the minor change we made and it, too, will be on its way to the governor.
Also completed is H.421, an act relating to animal cruelty investigation response and training, which defines “humane officer”, what training they need, and under what circumstances they may work. The Senate also included clarifying language regarding adequate shelter for livestock and grazing methods that are considered acceptable management practices.
Our final bill is H.420, our agricultural Housekeeping Bill, which includes technical changes. It came back from the Senate remarkably unchanged (it frequently becomes a “Christmas Tree”), and the only change was increased numbers of animals that can be included in the personal exemption for on-farm slaughter. Everyone agreed that the increase in numbers was a positive step, especially given the bottlenecks at our slaughter facilities. Additionally, it asks Legislative Counsel to work with the AAFM and other interested parties to review federal and state law to see if there is some way to exempt from license and inspection requirements the slaughter of livestock and provision of meat under an animal share contract.
The coming weeks will see increased floor action including S.15, an act relating to mailing out ballots, correcting defective ballots, and miscellaneous changes to state election laws. In recent elections when ballots were mailed out, voter participation increased significantly, which is what we want to encourage. Making this practice possible in the future is a positive step for a more complete and participatory democracy. Together, we govern!