by Bethany M. Dunbar
NEWPORT, VT — Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross held a listening session and talked with local farmers about agriculture issues. The two-hour session Dec. 3 was part of a series of meetings, the Secretary has been holding around the state.
Ross had met with U.S. Senator Pat Leahy shortly before, and he told the local farmers that the farm bill is in better shape than it was a few months ago. It passed the Senate some time ago, but more recently a version has passed the House and now is in a conference committee. “The biggest battle is not dairy. It’s SNAP,” he said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Senate version of the farm bill would allow dairy farmers to buy crop insurance similarly to how farmers who grow corn and other grains do. It would save taxpayers money and offer dairy farmers some stability in their prices, which are determined by a complicated federal formula. The Senate version of the farm bill also includes a voluntary supply management program.
Ross said there are no guarantees, but “the farm bill has gone from no chance to some chance.”
Ross has just been elected president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. He said the Vermont name is known and recognized around the world. He recently got back from a trade mission to China.
“Vermont is a leader,” he said. “We are really on the cutting edge. We are also number one in terms of direct marketing,” he said, and that’s through farmers markets and community supported agriculture groups.
Vermont is a leader in a working landscape grant program the state has created, and people around the United States and the world want to know more about how it works so they can borrow the idea. Vermont’s private sector is leading the way in answering an industry demand for more meat processing capacity, he said. Three years ago there was a serious problem in Vermont in terms of a shortage of slaughterhouse capacity. “We’ve actually doubled our capacity,” he said. Vermont has also doubled the number of milk processing plants since 2008, some small and some large.
A deadline to comment on a draft of a federal food safety rule has just gone by, and Ross said he is hoping the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will see that so many changes are needed to the draft that they will need to make up a new draft.
“They’ve had over 20,000 comments on those draft rules,” he said. He said all three of Vermont’s congressional delegation — who supported passage of food safety legislation — are pushing for a new draft.
If the first draft is approved, it would have a huge impact on vegetable growers, he said, including a rule that says “you can’t harvest out of a field for nine months after you’ve spread manure.”
In Vermont, that would mean putting fields out of production for a year at a time.
It also requires that farmers must constantly test any water used for irrigation of farm fields. Ross said there are not enough labs to do all the testing required in the draft law, called the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
“The problem is, quite candidly, the FDA wrote a draft rule that is not effective for Vermont and many other states,” he said. “People are going to be regulated in ways they have never been regulated before.”
He said FDA wants a new pasteurization milk ordinance, when the old one has been working fine.
Ross said FDA does not want to delay longer because it is the subject of a federal lawsuit which says the laws are needed and have already been delayed long enough. The FDA is being sued by the Center for Food Safety.
“What’s the real need for it?” asked farmer Bill Hill of Hardwick about the new rules. He said he has not heard of anyone getting sick or dying from farm vegetables in Vermont.
Ross said there is truly a need for a new food safety law. It is intended to level the playing field globally, and it is meant to make food safer for consumers. Farm crops in other states have caused illness, and he said when that happens it affects farmers who grow the same crop anywhere. For example, an outbreak of a deadly disease in cantaloupe in Colorado had a devastating affect on California cantaloupe farmers.
Dairy farmer Vernon Hurd of Newport Center remarked on raw milk, saying that’s a product that really could cause illness. Ross said the question of selling raw (unpasteurized) milk is for the Vermont Legislature to consider. He told Hurd to talk to Senator Bobby Starr of Troy and Representative Bill Johnson of Canaan who were both in attendanceat the Newport listening session.
Sylvia Jensen, land use administrator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, told the group about a bill that passed the House in Vermont to change current use. “Vermont would not be Vermont today without the current use program,” she said, but the cost of the program has been growing steadily.
Current use assesses working farm and forest land at its use value, often drastically lower than its fair market value. The person who owns the working farm or forest land pays property taxes based on the lower rate, and the state makes up the difference to towns. The program costs $13-million, a year, Jensen said.
“I think on its current trend, it’s unsustainable.”
She said 1/3 of Vermont is enrolled in current use.
Senator Starr has been holding hearings around the state on this issue. He said he thinks the reason the cost of current use has gone so high is that town listers are appraising properties enrolled in current use too high. If they do that, Starr said, the landowner does not get stuck with the higher tax bill — the state does. He said property transfer reports have shown a distinct trend.
“The towns are overassessing,” he said. “Over 50 percent of properties have been overassessed.”
He said he has asked people with the state’s Property Valuation and Review office to spot check in other towns around Vermont because if the trend is this strong in Orleans County, it is probably happening elsewhere as well.
Starr said he is considering a way to penalize communities when more than 50 percent of properties are overassessed.
“You’ve got to get at the core of the problem,” he said.
Ken Hafner is an agriculture recovery specialist for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. He was hired to help farmers recover from Irene, and his job now is to help them plan for the next disaster.
“Every single farm should have an emergency plan,” he said. If there is a flood or a fire, for example, the farmer should have a plan for where the animals will go. Farms should have generators and fire extinguishers.
“Do you know the snowload capacity of your buildings?” he asked.
Hafner said the farms that did have plans fared much better after Irene than those that did not.
Ross said it’s easy to put off making an emergency plan, but farmers should give it priority. When his own barn caught fire, he said, he was lucky because the fire department knew exactly where he was and arrived within 10 minutes. There was adequate access and room for the fire trucks in the driveway, which can be a problem on back roads.
For a detailed emergency workbook, Hafner recommended looking up readyag.psu.edu on the internet.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross holds listening session in Newport
by Bethany M. Dunbar