Legislative Update for Week Ending April 16, 2021
The Senate Agriculture Committee reviewed changes to this language based on conversations with Chair Campion from Senate Education. The focus has changed from both meals offered free to only breakfast for all students, due mostly to the cost and pushback from school superintendents. The current draft will remove $6-$8 million annually from the Education Fund to pay for the meals. A study in the effectiveness of the program was originally scheduled to report to the Legislature by December 15, 2021, but members agreed there would be no significant reports available as the program would only have begun in September. New staff in the Agency of Education will require $100,000 from the General Fund. Senator Starr recalled testimony from someone in the Agency of Education saying their budget may be able to support this new staff without more money and he wanted this clarified. Senator Pollina requested the Task Force listed in the bill would come back with a specific timeline for implementation of the free lunch program.
The Senate Education Committee had plans to discuss the changes to this bill during their Wednesday afternoon meeting but did not. Senator Starr reported the funding request of $6-$8 million to Senate Appropriations who supported the plan, but the bill cannot go onto the Notice Calendar until Senator Campion’s committee signs off and S.100 is not on the Senate Education Committee’s schedule for this week.
The Senate Judiciary Committee walked through H.89 with Senior Legislative Counsel Michael O’Grady. Mr. O’Grady noted several other activities – including sports, recreation (skiing) and equine – are listed in statute with limited liability coverage and it does not mean sites can do without insurance or adhering to the proposed language. There were several good clarifying questions from Senator Nitka and a request to clarify the word “participant”. Please email members of this committee in support of this language, particularly if you are currently operating an agritourism site.
Contacts include Senators Sears (Rsears@leg.state.vt.us), Nitka (Anitka@leg.state.vt.us), White (Jwhite@leg.state.vt.us), Benning (Jbenning@leg.state.vt.us) and Baruth (Pbaruth@leg.state.vt.us). Vermont Farm Bureau supports the language in H.89.
Webinar on Federal Milk Marketing Orders
The Minnesota Milk Dairy Business Association in cooperation with the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association hosted Dr. Marin Bozic for an hour long workshop on understanding the Producer Price Differentials (PPD) which have been creating problems with milk checks in 2020 and continuing into 2021. Dr. Bozic is reviewing the Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) and other issues that affect milk prices to farmers. He noted that the PPD line on a milk check should be transparent and there are no current regulations on what is actually in that line. He was working on several theories on how FMMOs might be changed. This webinar was recorded and can be viewed at www.mnmilk.org. This Association will be offering workshops on dairy pricing throughout the year; they are free but you need to register prior to the scheduled event.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee continued discussion on this language with staff from the Agency of Agriculture. There is concern in the soil amendments section that fees are different between feed supplements ($105 per supplement) and dosage for animal health (at $50 per product). Chair Partridge believes this difference could be interpreted as a new fee which would require the bill to go to Ways and Means. There was question about whether the Administration would agree to a new fee.
At a later meeting of the Committee, an amendment was discussed that would have added new language for Forest-based Enterprises for Act 250 and an Act 250 exemption for the construction of improvements for an accessory on-farm business. Both suggestions have been part of previous conversations. The forest issue was part of H.926 in the 2020 session. The building exemption for on-farm business has been promoted by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture for several years. Chair Partridge was interested in walking through the proposed amendment. However, she had discussed the language with Chair Sheldon from House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife. Chair Sheldon commented if S.102 was amended with the proposed language that she would pull it into House Natural Resources and probably not take it up until next year. Consequently, Chair Partridge suggested continued work on S.102 but not adding the proposed amendment. The draft with the Act 250 language may be considered as a stand-alone bill in 2022.
The Senate Agriculture Committee voted out H.218 on a 4-1-0 vote with Senator Corey Parent the only “no” vote. Though there was a minor change in the definition of Community Supported Agriculture the bill passed as sent from the House. Senator Pollina will report the bill to the Senate next week.
The Senate Agriculture Committee combined the original H.88 language with the language of S.61. The combined language will allow the Director of the Use Value Appraisal Program to consider other forms of certification enrollment in the program and allow a solar generation facility on an aggregate of 0.1 acre of land to stay in the Use Value Appraisal Program. There was also a minor change to the language regarding open land qualifying as managed forestland at the request of Commissioner Michael Snyder. The bill passed on a vote of 5-0-0 and is headed to the Senate floor. If passed by the Senate, it would need to return to House Agriculture where those members would need to consent to the changes.
Senior Legislative Counsel Michael O’Grady presented a side-by-side comparison of the original language for H.434 and a proposal by Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore. The most significant changes were within the makeup of the Board:
- The House-passed version contained 14 members, including a mix of government and public appointees. The ANR proposal designated 6 members.
- It contained four seats for a variety of farming representatives. The ANR proposal left just one seat open for “a member of the farming community.”
- The committee removed the representative from an organization involved in land conservation and a member of the public knowledgeable in agricultural water management.
- They also changed the description of a representative from an environmental advocacy organization to include someone knowledgeable in toxins.
Vermont Farm Bureau testified in support of this language with a change to the description of the farming designees. There was concern with specific reference to “a member of the farming community who practices organic agriculture.” The other three farm seats were: “a member of the public representing the dairy industry”; “a member of the public representing fruit and vegetable production”; and “a member of the public representing grass-based nondairy livestock”. The committee agreed to make the language consistent and focus on ensuring the community was represented by actual farmers or organizations representing farmers.
Senator Parent requested the Seed Advisory Committee be repealed and their charge included in the Agriculture Innovation Board. After discussion with Kanika Gandhi and Cary Giguere from the Agency of Agriculture, it was agreed to make the change.
Secretary Moore proposed establishing two advisory panels within the scope of the Agriculture Innovation Board. These would include the current Pesticide Advisory Council and a new Clean Water and Ecosystems Services Advisory Panel. Mr. O’Grady noted in previous discussions the intent of the new Board would be to appoint special focus groups or panels as necessary, based on issues and the Senate members were satisfied with that.
There was question of how quickly this Board could respond to issues since the language only requires them to meet four times per year. Ms. Gandhi responded that the draft requires them to meet “at least” four times annually and they could meet more often as necessary.
Passed by the House, the Senate Agriculture Committee has possession of this language. It is being referred to as the “housekeeping bill” for the Agency of Agriculture. Senator Starr noted they would begin discussion of H.420 next week and would work to get it to the Senate floor within the next two weeks. He is expecting the Senate morning committees to be “shut down” by the end of April, which means anything members want to move would have to be completed within the next two weeks.
Senator Russ Ingalls offered language to implement a $0.05 tax on every retail dairy product offered by a distributor or retailer. The funds would be returned to dairy farmers. The Senate Agriculture Committee feels there is not enough time to work on this bill before the end of April. It will be taken up January 2022.
Senator Starr announced the addition of Jo Bradley, former Chief Executive Officer of the Vermont Economic Development Authority, to the Dairy Task Force, as well as an unnamed member of the House. Other members include Senators Starr and Brock.
This bill is sponsored by Representative Amy Sheldon and others from the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee. Testimony has begun on several sections, on Act 250 history and organizational plans offered by Diane Snelling, Chair of the Natural Resources Board. Vermont Farm Bureau will be monitoring this language and work with Representative Harvey Smith and Representative Leland Morgan to follow possible negative impacts to agriculture and forestry. It has yet to be determined if it will make it to the House floor for a vote before the mid-May adjournment.
DFA Visits with House Agriculture On “Milk Dumping”
Members of the House Agriculture Committee asked Kiersten Bourgeois, Communications Director and Jennifer Huson, Senior Director of Marketing from the Dairy Farmers of America Cooperative to offer updates on management of the milk supply.
Committee members had been hearing from farmers in their district with concerns about milk dumping and wanted clarification on the issue. Ms. Huson noted that when dealing with surplus milk the Cooperative asked “can other processors take the additional milk?” “Can DFA shift operationally – move to other plants within DFA? “Can we balance products by moving the milk?” She also clarified that even if milk has to be dumped, farmers are paid for that milk. Currently DFA producers are getting paid full price for 87% of their milk and the remaining 13% of production is paid based on the full price minus balancing costs.
Ms. Bourgeois reported DFA was involved in the Farmers to Families Food Box distributions through USDA as well as their own program which donated products, funds and even refrigerators to food banks and others in the past year.
USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program Discontinued
Due to the high cost, uneven distribution (leaving some rural communities underserved), and numerous other issues, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has been canceled. In 2020, the USDA spent six times its normal emergency food budget on this program. Vermont was one of the states where distribution challenges by an out of state company left some communities without the boxes. Program modifications under former USDA Secretary Perdue removed the local Abbey Food Group from procurement and distribution services.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is now redirecting tax dollars to focus on different hunger initiatives, including expanding supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits and increasing food purchases through existing government food distribution programs.
The Consolidated Appropriated Act of 2021 established the Dairy Donation Program (DDP) will utilize $400 million to aid in the timely donation of dairy products to nonprofit organizations. These groups will then distribute dairy products locally to minimize food waste. The Act allows for retroactive reimbursement of donations made before the plans are approved. The dairy industry is encouraged to process and donate surplus milk supplies caused by the spring surplus production season. For more information, please visit www.ams.usda.gov/notices.
As noted earlier, the Senate is already discussing “shutting down” the morning committee meetings so members can focus on the budget and money committees in preparation for a proposed adjournment of May 15. Leadership of both the House and Senate will also be scheduling another session for mid to late June in case the Governor vetoes any of the bills passed by the Legislature.
Enjoy the beautiful spring weather. Thank you for supporting Vermont Farm Bureau.