Much of the work of the legislature is carried out in committees. Here issues are studied, policy is formed, and legislation is drafted to implement those policies. Committees often spend much time preparing bills and listening to testimony before presenting proposed new legislation to the full House of Representatives.
The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee moved important legislation forward that will help to protect our pollinators. First, we established a task force to investigate the causes of pollinator decline and to propose recommendations to the legislature in the form of a pollinator protection plan. Next, we empowered our pesticide regulators to act when the Pesticide Advisory Council determines that items treated with the pesticide most commonly implicated in pollinator decline is shown to have harmful effects on the environment. There is already ample evidence that neonicotinoid-treated seeds and other treated items are partially to blame for the decline of bees nationwide, so we anticipate that the scientific evidence will compel the experts to make appropriate recommendations for mitigating the harm that results from the use of this pesticide.
Required Agricultural Practices - Act 64 (An act relating to improving the quality of State waters)
Vermont began a long process in 2015 of improving the quality of our state’s waterways. Rethinking and revising our forestry and farming practices are an important part of this work. In October, the Agency of Agriculture released a draft of the new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), sparking thoughtful conversations about how best to improve the health and productivity of our soil and water. Small farmers, in particular, are engaged and working to ensure that the new rules recognize that regenerative agricultural practices are the most sustainable approach to striking this balance.
Developing the RAPs presents an opportunity for farmers to participate in the process as we work to improve water quality in Vermont. Farmers will have access to technical and financial assistance, incentives, and other types of support as they come into compliance with water quality standards.
Agricultural Exemptions from Sales and Use Tax
Under previous law, farmers were required to establish that they used agricultural equipment at least 96% of the time for agricultural purposes in order to claim an exemption from Vermont sales and use tax. Such purposes did not include many routine tasks that are critical to farm operations, such as plowing snow so that milk trucks can access the bulk tanks and so that feed deliveries can be made. Retailers caught in a Tax Department audit occasionally owed sales tax that "should have been collected" on equipment whose main purpose was clearly agricultural. The legislature has adopted a more sensible definition so that a farmer can claim the exemption if they use the equipment predominantly for agriculture, defined as 75% of the time. We also provided a more comprehensive list of items that are not taxable if purchased for agricultural use.
Vermont’s Working Landscape
Vermonters overwhelmingly identify the working landscape as one of the aspects of our state that they value most. According to the Vermont Council on Rural Development, over 97% of Vermonters believe that our working landscape is key to our future. Our working farms, bountiful forests, and value-added products hold tremendous opportunity for job creation and rural revitalization. We are in the midst of an agricultural renaissance that is sparking new economic growth and shaping our legacy for future generations. Our successes have been due to the efforts of skilled and dedicated farmers, creative entrepreneurs, and the strategic investment of private and public funds.
Recognizing that Vermont’s most reliable assets are our people, our natural resources and our brand, the Working Lands bill will stimulate economic development, encouraging entrepreneurism and job creation in agriculture and in Vermont's forest products industry. The Agriculture Development Board, established in 2010, will now also set policy for the forest industry. A new group, the Working Landscapes Enterprise Board, will implement the policy, making determinations on funding and resources for those who want to start up, expand, or branch out in agriculture and forestry. The board will consider enterprise grants, infrastructure investments, capital for a business’s growth phase, and business planning and startup help, as well as wraparound services, technical assistance, and financial packaging. Available funds may be leveraged through private funders and foundations.
This is a transformational piece of legislation that can help insure that Vermont still has vibrant agricultural and forest activity in 20 years.
Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food
Vermonters care about food and care about choice. Today 80% of all packaged foods sold in this country are products of genetic engineering, yet it is extremely difficult for Vermonters to make informed choices about these products because they are not labeled, or are mislabeled as “natural.” This is a concern to many Vermonters and the impetus for the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Labeling bill.
Enacting Vermont's law requiring labeling of genetically engineered food in 2014 has resulted in significant changes across the nation. Major food producers are now labeling their products. The action and testimony taken by my committee laid out a legally defensible case for a statewide labeling requirement of foods produce through genetic engineering. Most importantly, a record was established to prove Vermont’s “legitimate state interest” for enactment of these requirements. Based on testimony from dozens of expert witnesses, there is genuine cause for concern regarding the public health and environmental consequences of genetic engineering. Furthermore, reputable polling conducted by the University of Vermont indicates that nearly 97% of Vermonters favor labeling. There is increasing public concern around this issue nationwide with numerous other states pursuing similar legislation. It is unfortunate that the Congress has enacted a law that supersedes Vermont's labeling law. Hopefully market forces across our country will achieve what our legislative process has failed to do.
Vermont without farms could be a good place…but it could never be Vermont; and while there are lots of good places, there is only one Vermont.
– Frank and Melissa Byran