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Farm viability bill scheduled for action

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March 22, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

VERGENNES — The Vermont House is scheduled to take action late this week on legislation aimed at boosting the economic viability of area farms, including initiatives that would make it easier for farmers to butcher their poultry and get their products into restaurants and schools.

The House Agriculture Committee on March 16 passed the so-called “farm viability bill” — also known as the farm omnibus bill. The main goals of the bill, according to House leaders, are to foster the development of a diversified agricultural sector; maintain the state’s prominence as a major milk producer in the region; and ensure the continued stewardship of the land with respect for the environment.

It was the second major piece of legislation passed out of the House Agriculture Committee this session. The first was the “farm aid bill,” passed in February, which included $3.2 million in emergency state assistance for cash-strapped farmers struggling to make ends meet until the spring planting season.

Once they developed and passed that aid package, members of the House Agriculture Committee — including Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, and Will Stevens, I-Shoreham — turned their attention to legislation to help make Vermont agriculture more viable and sustainable.

“The sense was that Vermont, as a state, can’t afford to keep on supporting dairy; we just don’t have the money to make up from the shortfall in income that comes out of the federal milk pricing system,” said Bray, one of several Addison County lawmakers to speak at a legislative luncheon hosted on Monday by the Northlands Job Corps in Vergennes. “What we really want to be doing is investing in our agricultural future.”

With that in mind, the committee put together a farm viability bill that calls for:

• The state of Vermont to establish a “buy local” system for food and dairy products purchased annually by the state and state-funded entities. It also establishes an Agency of Agriculture program that would provide strategic and technical assistance to local producers and processors for creating or enlarging the facilities necessary to produce or process food for sale to the state or other expanded markets.

• Changes in poultry inspection guidelines. Farmers are currently allowed to slaughter, without inspection, fewer than 1,000 birds for sale to individuals or at farmers’ markets. The new bill would extend the right to sell to restaurants, as well. The Department of Health would promulgate rules for product labels that would include a menu disclosure requirement as well. The department would have until Nov. 1, 2007, to establish the labeling requirements. The bill would only apply to birds produced, slaughtered and consumed in the state of Vermont.

• Authority for “mobile slaughter establishments” to be used on farms or agricultural fairgrounds.

Vermont has seen a rapid decline in slaughterhouses in recent years.

Bray said lawmakers are discussing a plan through which the state would own the mobile slaughter facility, then lease it to a private entity that would operate it.

“Anyone can have the unit come to them,” Bray said.

• Vermont public schools purchase dairy and food products grown or produced in Vermont, whenever possible.

“All of these things are very investment-oriented,” said Bray, who added the financing of various provisions of the farm viability measure will have to be sorted out in the fiscal year 2008 appropriations bill. He believes the appropriations bill will include enough money to fund the farm initiatives.

“The Agency of Agriculture is fully behind this,” Bray said. “This is something they have been working on for a while.”

The farm viability bill was set to come up for a House vote as soon as this Wednesday, March 21. That would put it on schedule to head to the Senate by this Friday, March 23.

That’s when some legislative wheeling and dealing will probably take place. Some of that dealing could involve a Senate initiative near and dear to Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport: a bill that would shift milk hauling and stop charges from farmers to dairy processors. The bill has already cleared the Senate and is now being considered in other states, thanks to the National Council on State Legislatures, according to Giard.

“The bill has been picked up by New York, and it has been picked up by New Hampshire,” said Giard, who said the initiative could save Vermont farmers $15 million annually — around $10,000 to $80,000 per farm, depending on the volume of milk they produce.

Giard said his bill on stop and hauling charges is currently in the House Agriculture Committee. He served notice that he expects some action on his bill for an in-kind response to the farm viability bill.

“Hauling and stop means a great deal to me,” Giard said. “So they’d better work on my bill, if they want me to work on theirs. That’s how that’s going to come down.”

Other topics discussed at Monday’s luncheon included:

• Property tax reform. Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said the House Ways and Means Committee continues to discuss options for reducing the tax burden on Vermonters. Sharpe said there appears to be no support for a proposal by Gov. James Douglas to cap property tax increases each year based on inflation rates.

Sharpe took issue with Douglas for criticizing the Legislature for having not made significant progress on property tax reform thus far this session.

“If he feels there is an easy solution, why didn’t he propose it when he was in the Legislature in 1972?” Sharpe said.

He acknowledged that some communities have significantly ratcheted up school spending since Act 60 and Act 68 were implemented during the past decade. But he said those increases have been related to the poorer school districts using their increased spending capacity to catch up with more affluent school districts that have historically been able to pay for better supplies and programs.

“If you want to restrict funding to teach in schools, how low is OK? Is $10,000 (per pupil) OK? Is it $15,000?” Sharpe asked. “Where is that balancing point, and how much are we willing to sacrifice in educating our children?”

• Renewable energy. Lawmakers pointed to a variety of bills navigating the Statehouse that support “green” initiatives, such as providing tax incentives to individuals and businesses that invest in renewable energy fuels and systems.

• Aquatic weeds in the southern section of Lake Champlain. Giard noted the Legislature appropriated more than $300,000 to buy a weed harvester that will be operated by the Lake Champlain Restoration Association. He said funds are now needed to buy a truck to haul away the harvested weeds.

Another legislative luncheon, devoted to agricultural issues, will be held at noon on Monday, March 26, at the Bridport Community Hall.

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