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Bill on soil practices draws fire at legislative lunch

BRIDPORT — Water quality, regenerative agriculture certification, farm labor, and the legislative budgeting process topped the bill at Monday’s Ag Lunch at the Bridport Grange.
Close to 50 attendees gathered for the annual lunch, which is part of the legislative breakfast series co-sponsored by the Bridport Grange and the Addison County Farm Bureau.
Legislators in attendance included Democratic Reps. Peter Conlon of Cornwall and Diane Lanpher of Vergennes, Shoreham Independent Terry Norris, and Republicans Harvey Smith of New Haven and Warren Van Wyck of Ferrisburgh.
Among the items engendering the most discussion was the so-called regeneration agriculture bill (S.43 and H.430). The bill would create a regenerative agriculture certification program as a means to “incentivize ecosystem restoration.”
The aim is to promote farming practices that increase carbon sequestration and “reduce the amount of sediment and waste entering” the state’s waterways.
The bill originated with the Soil4Climate Advisory Board and Shaftsbury farmer Jesse McDougall. In the Senate it was co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven. The House sponsor was Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, with co-sponsors including Conlon and Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury.
First introduced last year as S.159, this was touted as the first such bill to be presented nationwide.
Almost all who spoke at Monday’s lunch raised concerns about the proposed law. Objections centered around two issues: ways the bill would duplicate water quality improvement efforts already legislated and already under way at farms across the state; and ways the regenerative certification could weaken the organic market by created a parallel (and overlapping) designation.
Smith, a former dairy farmer whose farm now focuses on pasture-raised beef and other all natural meats, opened the lively lunchtime discussion by commenting on the bill and then invited Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition President Brian Kemp to speak on the group’s farmer-to-farmer education and outreach efforts to promote farming practices that improve water quality.
Kemp detailed the group’s growth from 12 members four years ago to now close to 90 now. He enumerated the coalition’s contributions to water quality including:
•  Getting farmers’ voices into the development of the state’s Required Agricultural Practices.
•  Promoting such farm practices as planting cover crops, using no-till approaches to growing corn and other crops, injecting rather than spreading manure, and using vegetated buffers close to waterways.
“Those practices are instrumental in helping clean up the lake. We’ve all adopted them. We’re all embracing them,” said Kemp. “Conventional farms have taken a lot of scrutiny lately that their practices are the problem and we don’t believe that. There are regenerative practices every day on these small and large farms.
“These practices come at a cost,” Kemp continued. “There’s farms that already out of their pocket have invested several hundred thousand dollars.
“This regenerative bill has been a concern for most of us. And I’m just here to say that there’s a lot that is already going on, and we don’t need a bill and another accountability system in place at taxpayer expense to facilitate it because it is happening and people are doing the right thing and we need to promote that more.”
BUDGETING CLEANUP
Lanpher, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, talked at length about the state budgeting process. Given the lunch’s ag focus, she described varying strategies proposed to fund the state’s mandated Lake Champlain cleanup over the long term. She described how the budgeting process works overall and gave a specific example of the Legislature’s budget discussions with UVM, which had proposed cuts to the Extension program despite the Extension’s crucial role in working with Vermont farmers.
Asked about a possible crackdown on the state’s undocumented dairy workers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Conlon took the mic. Having worked in the dairy labor field in thepast, Conlon discussed ongoing work in Washington by Vermont’s congressional delegation and lawmakers from other dairy states to reform federal immigration policy. For now, he said, a hopeful outcome would be to reestablish the philosophy of “detente” whereby federal agents wouldn’t seek out foreign-born farm laborers with immigration issues as long as they didn’t otherwise break the law.
Smith added that immigration reform required federal legislators to work across the aisles and gave an example of how the state’s budget was worked out successfully thanks to a “tripartisan effort.”
“George W. Bush had an immigration bill that the Democrats didn’t like. President Obama had an immigration bill that the Republicans didn’t like. And yet there was a lot of similarities, there was a lot of the exact same language in both those pieces of legislation,” Smith said.
“So if we in Vermont can pull something together and get a good outcome, we should be holding Washington to the same standard.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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