County legislators talk ag policy

BRIDPORT — Although the Legislature is primarily occupied with bigger state budget and health care bills, several lawmakers joined farmers and other interested people to discuss agriculture issues that affect the county at the annual ag legislative luncheon at the Bridport Community Hall on Monday.
On the docket before legislators in Montpelier are bills regulating genetically engineered seeds and on-farm poultry slaughter. And even as the consensus at the luncheon was that agriculture issues have taken a back seat to other pressing problems, participants noted that issues like health care reform have a big impact on farmers and farm businesses.
Rep. Will Stevens — a Shoreham independent who was joined at the luncheon by Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, and Jenny Nelson, agriculture policy advisor to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — said he anticipated a busy week in Montpelier as the House and Senate took on the revenue, health care and budget bills.
And he did  speak about a bill currently in the House Agriculture Committee concerning the use in Vermont of genetically engineered alfalfa, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated earlier this year. The bill, as introduced, would establish strict regulations for seed dealers and farmers in the state who are selling or growing the altered seed.
“The design is to set a high bar for the use of the seed,” said Stevens. “That’s obviously very controversial.”
Marie Audet, of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, spoke up to raise her concerns about regulation.
“Just for our farm alone, we’d have to hire another person,” she said. “It’s not just notifying the other person, it’s getting a signed affidavit from every neighbor. Someone who’s not educated on the seed might get scared because it’s a legal document.”
And Paul Wagner, a former dairy farmer from Bridport, pointed out that there are few active farmers in the Senate, and he was concerned that the legislation would not reflect the interests of farmers.
But Stevens assured the luncheon attendees that the bill would not pass to the floor until the Agriculture Committee had heard extensive testimony on the issue and examined all sides.
“There are a lot of onerous restrictions (in the bill as introduced),” said Stevens. “You have reason to be concerned … but I think it’s safe to say that if any bill comes out of the House Ag Committee, it won’t look like the bill that was introduced.”
He added that while the Agriculture Committee may begin hearing testimony on the bill in April, it is not likely to come up in earnest until next January.
Tim Buskey, administrator of the Vermont Farm Bureau, asked for an update on the status of bill H.52, which was passed in the House and now heads to the Senate. Buskey said the bill would allow poultry slaughter without the presence of a federal inspector, so long as it was done in an inspected facility.
“I would guess that it will meet favorable response in Senate Agriculture, due to the fact that it’s an area that we want to see expand,” said Giard. “In terms of wanting to push agriculture forward, I would say that this legislation will move forward.”
Buskey explained that the USDA does not require inspection, while Vermont law does. In the past, he said, the federal government and state government have split the inspector cost, but now that burden is falling to the farmers.
“That money is all dried up, so anyone who wants to slaughter those animals in their own facility will have to pay the $40.11 an hour for a federal inspector,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why the committee would like to see it move forward and not wait any longer.”
Giard said that this sort of legislation would encourage the local production and consumption, which is necessary to encourage a “renaissance in agriculture” in the state.
But he admitted that the Legislature is tied up looking at a broader picture at the moment.
“When you’re looking at being $153 million in the hole, that’s going to impact a lot of programs,” he said.
Some at Monday’s meeting questioned the proposed health care overhaul and its ability to fix the financial difficulties of the current system. Cornwall dairy farmer John Roberts said that, having grown up in England under a single-payer system, he is watching the movement toward health care reform closely.
Giard said he finds unexpected parallels between his former industry, dairy farming, and the current debate over health care.
“I find health care is very similar to where dairy farms were 20 years ago, when the price began to stagnate and we had to figure out how we were going to run our farms,” he said. “I don’t see the federal government becoming more generous, I don’t see insurance companies becoming more generous, and I don’t see the state becoming more generous to pay the doctors and the hospitals for what they do.
“We had to figure out how are we going to work in this new model. Health care is in the same place. They’re going through the same struggles each individual dairy farmer went through … they need to figure out how they’re going to run their offices more efficiently, more productively — everything that we did in agriculture.”
Audet said she wants to be sure that health care reform takes into account businesses like dairy farms, that are already stretched to their budgetary limits.
“Nobody is going to disagree that there’s a lot of work we can do to improve health care — I just want the representatives to keep in mind how to cut costs along with this,” said Audet. “As an employer of 25 people, we already pay for their health care, we already pay for their (Health Savings Accounts). I’m all about being fair for everybody, but it can’t come out of us any more than it already is.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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