Ag Agency, Starr want to keep farm plans under wraps

Sen. John Rodgers (left), D-Essex-Orleans, is vice chair of the Senate Committee on Institutions, and Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, is chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger
Sen. Robert “Bobby” Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, is pushing a bill that would exempt farm pollution control plans from the Vermont Public Records Act.
If the records are released, Starr says, protesters might disrupt farmers. “People have way too much time on their hands,” Starr said. “People love to protest. This would just give them one more excuse to protest on farms where the farmer’s under enough stress already.”
Starr characterized the pollution-control documents as “business plans” with proprietary information.
Vermont’s roughly 260 exemptions to the state’s public-records disclosure laws already protect trade secrets and confidential business information from examination by members of the public. Starr’s bill would add nutrient management plans to the list of exemptions under the state’s public records disclosure law.
While the nutrient management plans are supposed to be publicly available now, they are effectively off-limits. The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets told VTDigger last year that it would charge $30,000-plus for nutrient farm management records.
Farming advocates say nutrient management plans for the state’s 250 largest farms were never meant to serve as regulatory documents. Nutrient management plans describe steps farmers put in place to prevent manure and fertilizers (“nutrients”) from polluting rivers, streams and lakes. The plans also describe expected yields, soil characteristics, fertilization methods and crop sequences.
One of the nutrients farms release — phosphorus — is a pollutant responsible for explosive growths of toxic, green bacteria that led to numerous beach closures along Lake Champlain last summer. Called cyanobacteria, the micro-organisms grow so rapidly in the presence of phosphorus that much of Lake Carmi turned green for several months last year, and health officials issued a “high alert” during the late summer and into the fall, declaring it hazardous for people to drink or to swim in.
Vermont farms are responsible for about 40 percent of the state’s phosphorus pollution feeding Lake Champlain’s cyanobacteria blooms, and 85 percent of the phosphorus fueling the algae on Lake Carmi, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Vermont’s phosphorus pollution also comes from roads, parking lots, stream bank erosion and municipal wastewater.
Lawmakers are seeking to direct millions of taxpayer dollars to Vermont farmers to abate phosphorus pollution. Farmers receive up to 90 percent public funding for pollution mitigation projects and practices and the planting of certain crops.
The Vermont Clean Water Act requires the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to put standards in place that prevent farms from polluting water. Environmental advocates say without the records it will be difficult to assess whether the programs have been cost effective.
Vermonters will plow tens of millions of dollars over the next 20 years into new farm practices that stem phosphorus pollution. Disclosure advocates say people who accept public funding should expect public scrutiny.
That’s the principle behind a bill in the Legislature that would require drug testing for Vermonters who receive public assistance, said House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton.
“If they are accepting the assistance, I think there should be some conditions before receiving this assistance,” Turner said. “We owe it to our constituents to make sure we can give people help, but to make sure that it’s not being abused.”
Turner did not respond to a request for comment about whether farmers should be held to the same standard.
Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, says it’s “bad government to hide things.”
“No other industry or business is allowed to hide their permits and their pollution plans, so we think farms should be treated like every other industry,” Hierl said. “Trade secrets, confidential business information can stay private — like with every other industry — but otherwise, information should be available to the public.”
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the bill as well. Vermont already has more than 260 exemptions from its public records laws, said ACLU of Vermont’s executive director, James Lyall.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Vermont is one of the worst states in the nation — earning an “F” grade — for the extent to which Vermont state government conceals documents from members of the public, Lyall said.
Public records are “a basic and fundamental tool of governmental accountability,” Lyall said. “Without transparency there can’t be accountability.”
Farmers say they have good reason to withhold the documents.
Unscrupulous people could misrepresent information from a farmer’s nutrient management plan and mislead the public, said Bill Rowell, chair of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance.
“I’ve seen some things where people take statistics to inflame the situation, and I think that probably underscores the whole thing,” Rowell said.
“If the nutrient management plans are part of the public process without limit… you’re going to see information misconstrued, and it’s going to inflame the situation, and I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said.
Alyson Eastman, deputy secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, said her agency has pushed for the public records exemptions. The plans are often hundreds of pages, and it’s an administrative burden to make them available to the public, she said.
Jonathan Chamberlain, who provides technical assistance to farmers, said his clients are worried that making the farm plans public would give competitors an advantage.
“It’s a competitive business,” he said. “To have all that information put out for any competitor so view is a concern.”
Only a portion of the plan actually describes how farmers control their nutrients from polluting public waters, Chamberlain said. Other portions of the plans describe proprietary business information, he said.
There are existing avenues for public records disclosure that allow Vermonters to see how their farm subsidies control farmers’ pollution, Chamberlain said — such as grant applications, and other records associated with public assistance.
Starr said there are other instances where private businesses receive public funding without any requirement to disclose how that funding is used.
“What about large corporations that get big tax breaks? That’s another system of government subsidies,” Starr said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Ag Agency, Starr want to keep farm plans under wraps.