Legislative Update for Week Ending April 23, 2021
Making several changes to the House version, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved the third draft of the bill on a 5-0-0 vote. Members added “study and issue recommendations regarding the feasibility of the use of biodegradable plastics in agriculture and the promotion of the use of and production of biodegradable plastics and similar products in Vermont” and “recommend practices that reduce the use of and exposure to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in order to protect soil biology, human health, and environmental health, including recommended targets to achieve the State goal of an overall reduction in the use of pesticides consistent with sound pest or vegetative management practices” to the charge of the Board.
The Committee also changed the makeup of the 13-member-board making assurances that active farmers would be seated including organic farming, conventional dairy, fruit or vegetable producers and grass-based (non-dairy) livestock producers. The Commissioner of Health ex-officio seat was designated as someone having expertise in the effects of pesticides on human health.
Under the legislation the Seed Review Committee and Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council are absorbed into the Agricultural Innovation Board. A change in the bill will allow the Secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets to have the final say on limits of conditions of sale, distribution, or use of a new genetically engineered seed or recommend a limited period of time for sale of such a seed in Vermont.
The Agriculture Innovation Board will meet a minimum of 4 times annually and be appointed by the Secretary of VAAFM prior to January 1, 2022.
A conference committee of the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees will be required to agree to the changes. Farm Bureau will continue to monitor the language.
House Agriculture and Forestry Committee to Work on Act 250 Proposal
Chair Carolyn Partridge had Committee members review the proposal from Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael Snyder and Abbey Willard of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Initially, there was discussion to add these two changes to S.102 but there was concern the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee would ask for the language and hold up the entire bill (which would have affected the food residuals and soil amendments language). This bill may become a committee bill that will be worked on for the remainder of this session and taken up in 2022.
The forestry changes to Act 250 offers a definition for “forest-based enterprise” which would include sawmills, veneer mills, pulp mills, pellet mills, producers of firewood, woodchips, mulch and fuel wood, and log and pulp concentration yards. It would not include facilities that purchase, market, and resell finished goods without first receiving forest products from forestry operations.
The definition of “forest product” means logs, pulpwood, veneer wood, bolt wood, wood chips, stud wood, poles, pilings, biomass, fuel wood, maple sap, and bark.
The new language states, “a permit condition that sets hours of operation for a forest-based enterprise shall only be imposed to mitigate an impact” and “a permit issued to a forest based enterprise shall allow the enterprise to ship and receive forest products outside regular hours of operation.” This would include deliveries outside of permitted hours of operation including nights, weekends, and holidays, for a minimum of 60 days per year. A permit issued to an enterprise that produces wood chips, pellets, cord wood, or other fuel wood used for heat shall allow shipment of those from the enterprise to the end user outside permitted hours of operation, including nights, weekends, and holidays, from October 1 through April 30 each year.
Conversion or primary agricultural soils by a forest-based enterprise as defined shall be entitled to a ratio of 1:1 protected acres to acres of affected primary agricultural soil.
The Act 250 change for agriculture would change the definition of the word “development” in 10 V.S.A. Section 6001(3)(D) to exempt the “construction of improvements for an accessory on-farm business located on a tract of land primarily devoted to farming provided the farming operation is subject to the Required Agricultural Practices Rule and the total area of improvements associated with the accessory on-farm business does not exceed one acre.”
Changes in fees for registrations in the Soil Amendments section landed this bill in the House Ways and Means Committee this week. Commercial feed product registration fees did not change from the current $105. There was concern around the new $50 per product fee for dosage form animal health products which are feed supplements primarily focused on animal products and not approved for health issues by the Food and Drug Administration. The fertilizer and lime registration fee would increase from $20 per nutrient/plant food element to an $85 fee per product.
The Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets estimated that up to 550 additional products would be registered as commercial feed products, raising an additional $57,000 annually. It is estimated that up to 1400 products may be subject to the dosage form animal health products registration requirement, raising around $70,000 annually. There are currently 14,000 units subject to the lime and fertilizer fee at $20 per nutrient, raising $280,000 in revenue annually. The new $85 per-product-fee would generate an additional$40,000. With 500 new registrations anticipated, the addition of plant amendments, plant bio stimulants and soil amendments as new categories, would bring an additional $42,000 annually.
The National Animal Supplement Council responded to these changes with a letter asking for a reduction in the dosage animal health products from $50 to between $25 to $30. The Council and VAAFM disagree about the number of new registrations in each category and the effect the increased fees would have on the supply chain and costs to the consumer.
At the request of Ways and Means Committee Chair Janet Ancel, the Agency and the Council reached a compromise. The amendment made by the Committee lowers the fee from $50 per dosage animal health products to $35. Chair Ancel said she had been in touch with Chair Partridge from House Agriculture who agreed with the changes.
Senate Finance took up H.437, hearing from Tax Commissioner Craig Bolio who testified in favor of the expansion to the manufacturing tax exemption and the manufactured home tax credit. He opposed the surcharge on the property transfer tax which would be one half of a percent of the value of the property transferred in excess of $1 million.
The sales tax exemption was expanded to include a business “that utilizes an integrated production operation to manufacture, process, fabricate or finish items for wholesale and retail distribution as part of what is regarded as an . . . Agricultural commodity processing operation.” It does not include meat lockers and meat markets that butcher or dress livestock or poultry in the regular course of their retail trade.
This bill, only 6 pages long, resulted in almost 6 hours of debate on the House floor last week. Agriculture became one of the focal points, as an exemption for the increased redemption fee from $0.05 to $0.10 included milk, dairy products, and plant based beverages. An exemption was also issued for nonalcoholic cider. In the end, the redemption fee was left at a nickel – right where it has been since 1972. The bill will head to the Senate for debate but probably not until 2022.
Agricultural Housing – Joint Hearing
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee and the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs spent nearly two hours to presentations by farm labor housing advocates on Wednesday, April 21st. Representatives from Migrant Justice and Milk with Dignity spoke of challenges in housing supplied to workers, particularly on dairy farms. Gus Seelig, Executive Director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board noted the Administration has proposed a $20 million line item in the VHCB budget to address housing issues in Vermont and the Senate Appropriations Committee had added another $20 million. He was willing to commit at least $500,000 and possibly more to address solutions but a concrete plan needs to be developed. Dan Baker, Professor of Community Development and Applied Economics at UVM, reported on the research he completed in 2019 and John Ryan, Development Cycles, reported on his Farmworker Housing Assessment Needs findings. Mr. Ryan was hired by Mr. Seelig to complete this research for VHCB.
There were many questions from members of both committees and an agreement that a plan needs to be developed. Mr. Ryan offered 12 recommendations but suggested focusing on a coordination of efforts and development of stakeholder commitment.
Vermont Farm Bureau has been at the table during discussion of this issue and will continue to participate. One of the challenges in the panel for this combined hearing was the lack of dairy farmers testifying. Their voices need to be heard and their participation is necessary going forward.
There was a question regarding wages paid to farm workers. Professor Baker noted the average wage was $12.00/hour with an additional $2.00 per hour considered in benefits. Chair Tom Stevens of the Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs commented that he will be looking at wages paid to farm workers when they revisit the minimum wage bill. If this committee begins focusing on farm worker wages, Vermont Farm Bureau will be asking farmers to testify so that proposals made by the Legislature are a result of hearing from all sides.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee has agreed to take further testimony on the farm labor housing issue and was planning to hear from witnesses on Thursday afternoon. Due to the House Floor session running late, it seems likely to be rescheduled for next week.
Word in the “Statehouse” is the date of adjournment has now been moved to May 21. The Transportation Bill has been voted out of the Senate Transportation Committee, but the Senate Appropriations Committee is still working on the budget and their proposal for consideration.
Enjoy the beautiful spring weather.
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