Lawmakers get earful on pot, lake clean-up

BRIDPORT — Marijuana legalization and Lake Champlain cleanup dominated this week’s legislative lunch in Bridport.
This week’s event — part of the ongoing legislative breakfast and lunch series sponsored by the Bridport Grange and the Addison County Farm Bureau — focused on agriculture.
Rep. Harvey Smith drew the first of many hearty chuckles that punctuated the discussion, when he responded to the Farm Bureau’s announcement of their upcoming Agriculture Appreciation Dinner Dance by saying, “I’ve got to tell you I’m really pleased to hear that announcement about the Ag Appreciation Day because the farmers that have been contacting me really don’t feel much appreciated.”
Smith, a long-time dairy farmer who sold his herd and shifted the Smith Family Farm’s focus to pasture-raised meat in 2005, represents New Haven, Weybridge and Bridport and serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products. Sen. Claire Ayer and Rep. Diane Lanpher, both Democrats, also attended the lunch.
   STATE REP. HARVEY Smith responds to a question at Monday’s Legislative Ag Lunch in Bridport”s community hall.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
A Ferrisburgh resident launched the first question, asking where things stood with marijuana legalization. This question set in motion what was the most intense discussion from the engaged crowd of around 40 attendees, ranging from how growing marijuana could benefit Vermont farmers to whether or how it might add to the state’s addiction problems.
The legislation, said Ayer, passed the Vermont Senate and is now in the House Judiciary Committee.
The question of whether legalizing marijuana could benefit Vermont farmers solicited a range of opinions, especially given that the legislation is still in process. Smith said he didn’t think legalization would offer much to Vermont farmers as the bill currently stands.
“I know a lot of people first thought that the rural communities could benefit by being involved in growing an additional crop,” said Smith, “but with the Senate bill that came across that’s not possible… and I think it’s a mistake if we go down that road.”
Ayer clarified that the current bill would favor smaller plots and smaller growers, while Lanpher added that it would cost $25,000 to apply to be a grower.
Attendee Tim Buskey, membership chair of the Addison County Farm Bureau and a member of the board of trustees of the Vermont Farm Bureau, reminded attendees that any farmer who receives any kind of federal farm benefit cannot be in violation of federal law and that even if Vermont were to legalize marijuana, it would still be illegal at the federal level. Smith concurred and reminded farmers of the statement all farmers sign when applying for USDA programs that verifies they are not involved in illegal activities and that “your ability to qualify for any of the federal programs is directly tied to that statement.”
But much of the discussion focused on the potential harm wrought by drug addiction.
Said Bridport attendee Paul Wagner: “I live in town, I milked cows for 45 years and saw the light and stopped doing it, but the Legislature shouldn’t even be talking about it. It’s against federal law.” Wagner, who noted that marijuana has become far more potent since the 1960s and 1970s, adding “it’s not your grandfather’s weed,” also expressed concern that children are subject to secondhand smoke.
“You smoke marijuana, everyone in the room smokes marijuana,” said Wagner, “Little kids in the room, it destroys their minds before they even get to be grown up.”
Bridport resident Bill Keyes was one of several vocal opponents. “I’m hoping our representatives come to their senses up there. It looks as though they’re more concerned about the tax dollars than they are about the youth of the state of Vermont. I think it’s wrong to ever pass it,” he said, drawing both an “amen” and the day’s only round of applause.
In a heartfelt responseto the state’s addiction problem, Lanpher said she thinks Vermont has more significant issues to focus on besides legalizing marijuana and that these more significant issues include cleaning up Lake Champlain, taking care of Vermont’s children and making sure the state’s health insurance system works effectively.
Later in the discussion, Lanpher responded from her point of view on the House Appropriations Committee where an overview of the state’s budget shows just how much addiction is costing Vermont.
On that committee, she said, “you get to see a little bit of all of the budgets and you start to see their relationships … so I think you’ve heard me say this before that if I could wave a magic wand over Vermont and if there was one wish, it would be to eliminate the addiction problem because it is driving up so many of the budgets, all of them.”
Lanpher then detailed the unprecedented number of children, especially those ages “zero to age five,” entering state custody because of addiction; the increasing pressure on the judicial system to handle drug-related custody and other issues; the back logs at the treatment centers; and the additional costs to law enforcement, corrections, the state’s attorney’s office, the defender general’s office, and the Department of Children and Families, on whose behalf the House recently passed a package that included funding 35 new social workers to go out into the field.
Speaking directly about the 529 children from zero to age five now in state custody, Lanpher said, “I get very emotional about this because those are our babies and we’re their custodians maybe for the rest of their lives to feed them, clothe them, educate them, love them.”
While the addiction crisis and legalizing marijuana drew by far the most responses from the audience, the legislators launched a detailed discussion about whether legislation being debated and put into place to clean up Lake Champlain would be fair and effective.
At present, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is continuing to revise the rules for Required Agricultural Practices as mandated by the water quality legislation (Act 64) passed June 2015.
Smith set the tone for the discussion by asking if the original promise that all sectors of the Vermont economy would be asked to take responsibility to clean up the lake is still the direction that clean-up is going.
“When we passed that water quality bill,” said Smith, “one of the tenets of the bill and one of the selling points was ‘all in.’ Everybody in the state was into this water quality issue together, all the way across the board. It didn’t matter whether you were a large farm or a small farm. It didn’t matter whether you were a municipality, a homeowner, recreational user, logger, whatever. Everybody was all in.”
Smith continued, “And now I’m seeing some lines being drawn as to who is in and who is out. I don’t know how it’s all fitting together, but I know that we need to have an open discussion to make sure that what we’re doing is on the concept of ‘all in’ and we’re working in ways that it’s going to be beneficial to improve water quality and it’s going to be cost effective.”
Farmer Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm, which milks 500 dairy cows and is a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, echoed that concern.
Audet said that on their dairy farm right now all the conversations are about water quality. “For two years now we haven’t plowed any ground,” she said, then invited attendees to come to the shop at Blue Spruce and take a look at the farm’s no-till corn planter. Audet also invited farmers and legislators to come to meetings of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, where farmers can work together on how to improve water quality and farm productivity.
“We went into this water quality issue understanding that we own the 40 percent of the problem, and we are in, and we are working and the pendulum is swinging,” said Audet. “But what we don’t like is what Harvey was alluding to: special interests saying ‘Well we’re just a small piece of this.’ An acre of soil is an acre of soil. The same rules have to apply across the board if we’re going to achieve the results that we need to achieve.”
Smith called on Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, to say what towns are doing to shoulder their part in improving water quality.
Lougee explained that the Agency of Natural Resources is at work on new rules for a general stormwater permit that will be required of all towns and that will govern how roads are built or repaired or retrofitted to improve water quality. Local road foremen, said Lougee, are already out, looking at culverts, roads and bridges to see which areas have the most impact on water quality and which are most in need of upgrades. The Legislature gave the ANR a 2017 deadline for coming up with new rules that will affect roads and municipalities.
“It’s a little bit of a time of angst for your road foremen because they don’t know what the rules are going to involve. They don’t know what they’re going to have to do,” said Lougee.
Lougee emphasized, however, that regional planning commissions statewide have also been tasked with providing expertise and assistance to towns as they prioritize road repairs and upgrades to improve water quality.
“We, the regional planning commission, are out helping them with some of the technology to look at culverts and look at road segments and look at bridges,” he said.
Lougee added that the new rules will allow towns 20 years to implement changes in roads, culverts and bridges to improve water quality.
Other agriculture-related subjects that came up at Monday’s lunch included a discussion of how farms and bio-digesters could become a part of the food wastes portion of Vermont’s universal recycling law and how Vermont could use its farm animal wastes to power greenhouses to produce more local food during the winters.
The next forum in the legislative series will be a breakfast, starting at 7 a.m., at the Congregational Church in Weybridge on April 4.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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