Skepticism greets bill promoting environmentally friendly farms

Haying in East Calais. Photo by Cate Chant/VTDigger
A bill directing subsidies to farmers who take steps to improve their soil quality met with suspicion in the Senate Committee on Agriculture Wednesday, with one senator complaining that it’s an example of Vermont farmers “taking it on the chin.”
The bill, titled S.903, would reward farmers for “regenerative agriculture,” which is described as farming practices that “reverse climate change by rebuilding organic matter in soil” with the ultimate effect of reducing carbon and improving water quality.
It would give farmers state recognition for their efforts and subsidize their efforts with money from the state’s Clean Water Fund. The bill would write into law an existing program engineered by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets called the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program.
Under that program, farmers receive a variety of testing, planning and other incentives to pursue certain environmental-quality standards. Farms that meet standards to be laid out in the new law will receive state certification and signage to recognize their environmental stewardship, according to material the agency supplied to lawmakers in support of the bill.
It’s a voluntary program and would remain that way, said Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.
Smith said the stewardship certification is intended not to require farmers to do much beyond following the law. “We wanted to find a way to thank the farmers, to let the community know that the farmers had met all the [required agricultural practices] and gone some level beyond that,” he told the committee.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.
The bill follows required agricultural practices, or RAPs, a set of standards farmers legally must meet in order to reduce their rate of water pollution. Vermont farmers are among the state’s top polluters, and they’re the primary source of phosphorus pollution that causes toxic bacterial blooms each summer in Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi and others, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Vermonters are expected to pay hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades to subsidize pollution-control measures on farms in order to bring these lakes and other public waters into compliance with state and federal clean water laws.
Sen. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, initially panned the bill.
“Farmers just take it right on the chin every time you turn around, and it’s unfair,” Branagan said. “They have spent thousands of dollars — hundreds of thousands of dollars — to come into compliance with all this stuff that the agency comes out with, and here’s a new thing.”
Smith said the bill was actually meant to help farmers. “This was a way of thanking the farmer. … It’s kind of a promotional thing, to thank the farmers and to say, ‘We’ve got a program that’s stricter than the water-quality standards,’” he said.
The Agency of Agriculture began developing a program to recognize environmental stewardship in 2013, at the request of farmers, said Ryan Patch, a senior agriculture development coordinator with the Agency of Agriculture.
Both organic farmers and what the industry terms “conventional” farmers have sought to enroll in the voluntary pilot program, said Jackie Folsom, a lobbyist with the Vermont Farm Bureau.
“This is congratulating farmers, and making it known that we’re already doing a lot of this stuff — because the assumption is always that we’re not, if we’re not organic, if we’re not small, if we’re not this or that,” Folsom told the committee.
“This is an across-the-board bill that says, ‘We are doing this, this is how we’re going to help others do more if they want to,’” she said.
However, Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, raised multiple objections to the bill.
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
He knocked language in the bill stating that the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that under current practices “the world could lose most if not all of its arable topsoil in 60 years.”
“I don’t care about this junk that scares people,” said Starr, adding that he does not know what “arable topsoil” means.
Starr objected as well to the fact that under H.903, the Agency of Agriculture would fund the farmers’ environmental stewardship program with money from the state’s Clean Water Fund (“notwithstanding the stated purpose of the Clean Water Fund,” according to the bill). That fund is expressly for the purpose of stemming water pollution in the state.
Starr has opposed separate legislation to create a funding source for hundreds of millions of dollars in pollution-control measures, in part, he said, because he believes lawmakers will poach for other purposes from any pool of money they write laws to create.
This bill is an example of just that, Starr told his colleague, Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, in Wednesday’s hearing.
“You see where that money’s coming from, Anthony? … It’s coming from the Clean Water Fund,” Starr said. “Well, you keep sucking money out of there, that’s why we couldn’t have a large pot of money to have sitting around here in Montpelier next year, that we don’t really need, because they’d be after it for stuff like this instead of cleaning up the lakes.”
“Some people would argue this is cleaning up the waterways,” Polina replied.
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