Legislators, citizens debate farm issues

BRIDPORT — At a lunch meeting in Bridport last Monday, local legislators participated in a lively conversation with constituents on agricultural issues.
Three legislators — Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham; Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven; and Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport — discussed the Working Lands bill, migrant farmworkers, genetically modified crops and a variety of other agricultural topics. The meeting was sponsored by the Bridport Grange and the Addison County Farm Bureau.
Much of the discussion hinged around working to bolster diversified agriculture and food processing in the state, and some said self-sufficiency within the state should be a major goal.
“It’s really important at this point that we concentrate on having local produce all year round,” said Joe Gleason of Bridport.
Smith said it’s clear to see how quickly agricultural opportunities are growing in contrast with the agricultural scene when he was growing up.
“Growing up, if you wanted to be in agriculture you needed to be in dairy,” said Smith. ”Today it’s a lot different. Today there are all kinds of opportunities out there.”
Giard and Stevens discussed the Working Lands bill, which aims to support agricultural entrepreneurship and growth, and has been a major focus of both the House and Senate agriculture committees this session.
The bill, said Giard, would help to simplify many pieces of the agriculture puzzle, including helping people to find or sell farmland or find financing for agricultural endeavors.
“The government does have a role in helping people to get on the land,” said Stevens. “(The Working Lands bill) is not for telling any one farm that they have to do something in a certain way, but it does allow people who have the dream, the passion and the sweat equity to get onto the land.”
Still, Paul Wagner of Bridport expressed worries over forgoing regional dairy revenue.
“Ninety-four percent of dairy we produce is shipped out of state,” he said. “Buying local is fine, but what’s the price? Going backwards and becoming non-competitive?”
The legislators answered with a call for building infrastructure in order to make processing and storage feasible within the state, potentially lowering the cost of some products and making local food more accessible year-round.
“One of the challenges we face is processing at a cost we can’t afford,” said Smith.
This isn’t just in the meat industry, he said: “We don’t have a place for processing fruits and vegetables.”
Steven Gross of Middlebury spoke up on a different topic.
“Listening to all of the topics that people have spoken about so far, the details, the context and the texture are specific to this area,” he said. “There are important things that our young people need to know. I see a time when a lot of those opportunities for local invention, local initiative and local innovation will be mostly lost … because we’ll be forced to follow a program that didn’t come from us.”
Gross, who is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Temple University and formerly chief of curriculum and instruction at the Vermont Department of Education, encouraged the lawmakers to speak with their colleagues on the education committees.
Stevens said standardized education in the core subjects doesn’t reflect the need for agricultural education to teach students the skills they need to keep Vermont’s landscape in agriculture, one of the topics reflected in the Working Lands bill.
“In order for us to perpetuate our land, we need that next generation of people who know how to farm, who know how to use a chainsaw, who know how to use a sawmill,” he said. “There are things going on right now that will push them out of the state.”
But, he said, he takes heart in the robust farm-to-school programs around the state, which go further than putting local foods in the cafeteria, also fostering agricultural education.
The crowd also took the time to applaud Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, who moderated the forum. Blue Spruce recent was honored with the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award — one of only three in the country to be honored.
Spence Putnam of Weybridge asked if anything concerning climate change was being discussed in the Legislature, especially following such warm weather.
While the legislators said there is nothing currently on the table that would directly address climate change, Smith pointed out that many in the private sector are working to cut down on energy usage, citing efforts at Blue Spruce Farm.
Across the state, said Smith, “we’ve taken a number of steps to move away from fossil fuels. We’re way ahead of most states, and we’re on track to be a leader in the country.”
Phyllis Bowdish of Weybridge brought up the issue of immigration, which she has been heading to Montpelier to discuss over the past couple months. She encouraged the Legislature to look seriously into the proposed bill that would offer a pathway to Vermont identification and driver’s licenses to migrant workers who can provide passports and “matricula” identification cards.
Giard said there will likely be a board created to examine the issue over the summer, and said the hearings on the issue have been “very eye opening” for him.
Stevens said he is also interested in the migrant farmworker topic from the perspective of the federal H2A visa program, which brings seasonal agricultural workers into the country legally.
“It appears to us as though the federal government is in the process of dismantling the (H2A) program,” said Stevens. “For my part, when that bill comes over to the House, I’d be looking to see what we can do for the H2A workers, too.”
“None of us want to go out there and work 10, 12 hour days,” said Bill Keyes of Bridport.
“If it weren’t for immigrants in this country, we’d be eating a lot lighter than we are now,” he added.
“I could take exception to that, Bill,” said Will Stevens — who owns Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham — to a round of laughter. “But I won’t.”
Audet wrapped up with a nod to the many different opinions and viewpoints expressed at the meeting.
“The beauty of our state is in our diversity — that’s our strength,” she said. “To quote Ben Gleason (a Bridport wheat farmer), ‘We have way more in common than we have differences.’”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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