Lawmakers tackle slaughterhouse, current use issues

MONTPELIER — While legislators focus their efforts on the Working Lands Enterprise Bill, they are also addressing other aspects of Vermont’s agricultural economy.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, and Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, both said they will be paying close attention to the discussion of slaughter issues this legislative session, both in the context of the Working Lands bill and on a larger scale.
“It takes eight or nine months for someone to (schedule with the slaughterhouse to) have their animals processed,” said Giard. “That’s an enormous bottleneck.”
The Legislature and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets have both highlighted the issue in past years, and the House and Senate agriculture committees have heard a great deal of testimony on the shortfalls of the current slaughter and processing capacity within the state.
This year, Giard said the input from the committee won’t be in the form of new rules and regulations for slaughter. Instead, he said the committee will search for funding that may help to develop existing slaughter and processing facilities and create new ones across the state.
“A lot of facilities need various pieces of equipment and expansion,” he said.
Andrea Ochs, president of the Addison County Farm Bureau, said late last month that the organization is also keeping close tabs on the Current Use program, which offers a lower property tax rate to those whose land is used as farm or forest rather than developed for commercial or residential uses.
Late in the 2010 legislative session, a miscellaneous tax bill passed in the House that would change the tax penalties for those property owners who change the use of their land within 12 years of entering the program. Farm Bureau officials say the higher penalties would be a blow to farmers who are already struggling to keep up with property taxes. The state Farm Bureau has proposed a tiered penalty system that would lower the cost of exiting the program after a set number of years.
Smith said he’s keeping a close eye on the bill, which is now in the Senate Finance Committee, and that Current Use must stay fair to farmers and foresters.
“We need an affordable way to tax our farmland fairly in how it’s being used,” said Smith. “There isn’t any landowner that can pay development prices on their property and farm it.”
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said he’s been surprised that there’s been no legislation yet concerning farmers affected by last August’s Tropical Storm Irene, though Giard said his committee has heard testimony on the crops that were destroyed by the storm and on aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Stevens said a critical time for those farmers affected will come in the spring, as people turn to planting.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said he expects to see ongoing discussion of the effects of Tropical Storm Irene. But, he said, it’s important to remember the outpouring of support for those farmers and communities affected by Tropical Storm Irene.
“We’re in much better shape in this state than we would have been had it not been for the incredible outreach of support on so many levels,” he said. “It’s come in the form of moral support, people offering up feed for farmers who are without, folks showing up on a farmstead and shoveling out barns or picking up fields.”
“The support … speaks so highly of who we are as a state, and how we operate as a community — how we go about supporting one another in times of need.”

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