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Longtime State Representative Carolyn Partridge chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

News / Column

‘You know, we all eat. And we need food’

Carolyn Partridge, longtime leader of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, outlines the changes in farming and forestry laws from this year’s session

This interview is adapted from Montpelier Happy Hour, a podcast from Commons reporter Olga Peters. The show — distributed by Peter “Fish” Case’s Earspoon local podcasting network — drops on Friday afternoons. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/user-795427523.

WINDHAM—My guest, Carolyn Partridge, is the Windham-3 state representative in the Vermont House, where she represents the towns of Windham, Grafton, Rockingham, Athens, and Brookline, as well as “a real small slice of North Westminster in what we lovingly call Gageville.”

A member of the House since 1999, she has chaired what is now the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry for 11 years.

Partridge raises sheep on her small farm, spinning and dying yarn for retail sale. A longtime member of the town’s school board, she has lived in Vermont since 1972 and in Windham since 1985.

During that time, she also served as both the assistant minority leader in 2003 and 2004 and the majority leader from 2005 to 2008.

To reach the representative, email her at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us.

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O.P.: What keeps you coming back? I’m just curious.

C.P.: Well, I really enjoy the work. First of all, it’s exciting. Sometimes it’s frustrating — let’s be honest about it. But it’s fascinating. I’m really quite dedicated to agriculture and forestry.

And so whenever we can do good work for those areas of the state — the working landscape, which, by the way, is key to our future — I love it.

And then the other bonus that I really love is the ability to help people, my constituents. It doesn’t always work — I can’t always fix their their problems. But when I can, it just gives me great joy.

O.P.: So, what were some of the big lifts that your committee accomplished for agriculture and forestry this legislative session?

C.P.: There are some really wonderful opportunities in both agriculture and forestry. But there are also some challenges. And we worked hard on a couple of major bills to deal with those.

Let me just describe the situation a little bit in terms of agriculture: we have a really serious challenge with our dairy sector. We have had low milk prices for four or five years, and our dairy farmers are struggling.

Dairy farms are the anchor agricultural industries in the state. Other auxiliary businesses like tractor and farming equipment suppliers, retailers of seed, feed, fertilizer — all of these folks are somewhat reliant on the dairy industry. They’re worth $3 million dollars a day to the state.

O.P.: Wow.

C.P.: But milk prices have been dropping. And the interesting thing is while the number of farms has plummeted — I think we’re down to around 700, and maybe we’ve dropped below — I know the number of cows has remained somewhat the same because of increased efficiencies and what have you. So has the amount of milk Vermont produces, and that $3 million a day, is staying somewhat the same.

But a number of smaller farms have gone out of business. So what happens then?

We know that a number of those farms have been absorbed by the larger farms, so they’re still in production to a degree. But we also have concerns about what happens to the other fields and farmland. We’ve seen what’s happened on the west side of the state going up to scrub and what have you; it’s not particularly attractive, and it’s concerning.

So while we’re experiencing that challenge in dairy, we’re also seeing a real bright spot with Vermont Farm to Plate, with Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, all of which are things that we’ve put into place over the last 10 or more years.

Such programs have been a real positive for the state. Based on a results-based accountability standard, we’ve created 6,559 net new jobs and 742 net new businesses and farms.

So while dairy is struggling, the smaller diversified farms and other food-related businesses, restaurants, and what have you have actually flourished and created jobs. So there’s this interesting balance there.

At the same time, forestry has suffered. The low-grade markets in Maine have closed; there are a number of mills that have closed. So our loggers are looking for places to market their wood. At the same time, some of those Maine and probably New Hampshire loggers are also looking for other markets as well. So all that has increased the stress on our logging sector.

But we also must realize that we have huge acreage in the state Current Use’s forestry program. Those land owners rely on foresters and loggers to do the work to keep them in compliance with their forest-management plans.

So logging, it’s a tough business. It is dangerous. Workers’ comp costs are extremely high. But at the same time we need our loggers to be able to keep our landowners in compliance with their forest management plans.

So these are some of the stressors that we have been experiencing in the state.

O.P.: I would love for you to give just a quick definition of these programs.

C.P.: Sure. Current Use, or Use Value Appraisal of Agricultural, Forest, Conservation and Farm Buildings Property, was instituted in 1978 in response to land being reappraised on development value as opposed to use value. And at the time there was significant concern that people like farmers who were just making their living from the land were going to be adversely affected by top property taxes.

So the Current Use program was developed to value land by its use value. In order to be a part of the program, you have to have 25 acres — in fact, 27 acres, because the two acres under your house is excluded from the program.

There’s a smaller agricultural program that I actually participate in; it allows for smaller amounts of acreage so long as you’re making at least $2,000 gross from that land.

O.P.: Your discussion of the Current Use program highlights how for farmers pricing is often a little bit out of whack because you can be land-rich as a farmer but money poor. Or for dairy farmers, they get paid, I believe, on a hundredweight of dairy but quite often their costs to feed the cows and to take care of employees and take care of the land is higher than what they get paid for the milk.

C.P.: So in the past we’ve seen what I call the three-year roller-coaster, where milk-carton milk prices will be high and then they dip. And during the high-price good times, farmers will put money away if they can to see themselves through the harder times. That how they have been able to make it.

But some of the smaller farms especially have just struggled incredibly hard and have thrown up their hands and said, “The heck with this; can’t do it any longer.” And it’s some of the toughest work. I have real compassion for dairy farmers. They’re the ones who are up at or before the crack of dawn, milk twice a day usually, and are hard at it, even after the sun goes down.

So it’s you know it just seems so unfair, but it’s a reality.

O.P.: What are some of the bills that passed this session that you want to highlight?

C.P.: I’d like to talk a little bit about are two bills in particular. There’s some others that we worked hard that are just totally gratifying to have to passed. But there are some major ones.

These programs are meant to improve soil quality and soil health, improve water quality at the same time, and by doing so speed up the resiliency of our soil at the same time.

The first is H.525, which the governor signed on June 17, is our miscellaneous housekeeping bill, which has a number of what we refer to as pretty technical housekeeping topics but there’s some other major changes that I think will be really positive for our farming community.

In particular, the bill gives incentive to farmers to improve their soil-health practices and at the same time, improve water quality.

That’s statewide, but in particular Lake Champlain is where we’re focused in terms of water quality. There is a total maximum daily load (TMDL) plan in place, and we have to meet certain requirements to get good grades with the federal government. We’re doing everything we can to meet those those requirements.

Last year, we passed a regenerative ag bill: the Environmental Stewardship Program, which focuses on soil-health and water-quality strategies. So it’s a way of rewarding farmers who go above and beyond the requirements of the required agricultural practices that are all meant to help us come into compliance with the TMDL program in effect here.

This bill did not make it through the process, but we’ve included it again this year.

We’ve also included the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, something that’s been in effect for quite a while on the federal level. It provides financial assistance to farms to forward the implementation of alternative nutrient-reduction practices and those things can be riparian forest buffers, grass waterways, grass filter strips, and other practices approved by the secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to improve soil quality and nutrient retention, and to reduce agricultural waste discharges.

It enhances the economic viability of farms in Vermont, improves health and productivity of soils, and encourages farmers to implement regenerative farming practices. It’s meant to bring a real consciousness to farmers, and many of the farmers are already employing many of these practices: cover cropping, low-till-no-till, keeping roots in the ground as long as possible so that there isn’t the kind of nutrient runoff that we’ve seen in the past.

We’ve morphed an ecosystems services payments program into the Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Program, which basically provides financial assistance for the implementation of alternative nutrient-reduction practices.

This will include conservation easements, land acquisition, farm structure decommissioning. We know that there are some farms that really are in places where they shouldn’t be. And this will allow for the potential to help decommission some of those farms if necessary and maybe transition the farms from an animal-based economy to hemp farming — something like that.

O.P.: Don’t these conservation practices to improve water quality and soil health also help with issues around climate change?

C.P.: Yes. Yes, they do. There is an indication that if we can cover crop 75,000 acres in the state — and I think we’re somewhat on our way to that — lots of farmers are doing that without even being asked if we can put. I think it’s 41,000 acres into filter strips and buffers. We can potentially draw down — oh, boy, am I going to remember the numbers here? — the equivalent of more than 21,000 cars and vehicles on the roads per year.

O.P.: Wow.

C.P.: So that’s pretty huge. And we realize that if you increase the organic matter in the topsoil by 1 percent you can increase the ability of an acre of land to absorb 27,000 additional gallons of water.

We’ve been seeing an incredible increase in extreme precipitation events — I think it’s a 74-percent increase in extreme one-day weather-precipitation events — over the last 50 years.

Tropical Storm Irene was a poster child for it, but others haven’t been quite so dramatic. We’ve seen that increase. And so anything we can do to increase the organic matter in thesoil will help retain that water.

So all of this is a real improvement. Carbon sequestration, which I’ll get to in one of our other bills, is the focus for forestry as well.

We know that our forests hold a huge amount of carbon. And so we’re looking to some of those other markets as well as revenue sources. Not only will we be improving the atmosphere and doing our part — or trying to do our part — toward climate change, but we would also potentially see revenue to the state of Vermont.

The housekeeping bill includes a first-in-the-nation seed-review committee so that the secretary of agriculture will be able to review the traits of new genetically engineered seed prior to its sale, distribution, or use in the state.

And that will be done by convening a seed-review committee of experts, which includes folks who were intimately involved in the sale of these seeds. They’re going to review the seeds and see if they should be approved, denied, or if conditions should be set upon them.

And one of the concerns is any kind of new seed with genetically engineered traits. In other parts of the country, herbicides have been applied to genetically engineered resistant crops — soybeans, in particular — in such a way that it has destroyed neighboring farms. That is of serious concern to farmers here.

We also changed the raw milk law a little bit. We had instituted some of these provisions to protect the farmers because we didn’t want there to be an unfortunate situation with raw milk and have farmers taken to court and adversely affected.

But we’ve agreed to a smaller sign so it can go down from 18 by 24 inches to 8{1/2} by 11 inches. We’ve changed the language a bit so it’s not quite as dire, and we have decided to allow the sales of raw milk at farmers’ markets without pre-sale.

We want people to be aware; we don’t want people who have no idea about raw milk to just step up to the farmers’ booth and buy stuff without knowing that there is a potential risk. It hasn’t been pasteurized and people who want to try raw milk for the first time might be a little bit careful about how much they drink just to start with. Those of us who drink raw milk on a regular basis have virtually no problem with it.

We raised the Farm to School Grant caps so that schools can apply for a more realistic amount when they when they decide to get involved with farm to school.

O.P.: That’s fantastic. I know you didn’t want to get too technical, but I appreciate that, because I think with so many people, our culture has shifted where a lot of people are no longer exposed to farming. Farming is not just going out and putting seeds in the ground; it’s a much more advanced industry than we often give it credit for. And I think it’s good to remind people of that.

C.P.: Another is the agriculture and forestry development bill.

We’re requiring a report on the stabilization and revitalization of the Vermont agricultural industry and that’s to be done by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.

Along with that we are asking for a dairy marketing assessment. Are there ways we could give incentive to the dairy marketing dairy industry? We know that a number of our farms have focused on value-added and that has worked to a degree, but it’s still a challenge. And we heard from Strafford Organic Creamery. We’ve heard from a number of folks who are producing on a small level from cow to finished product. And one of the great challenges is transportation and getting your product to market.

Senator Bobby Starr, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been really interested in a dairy processing plant in the southern part of the state, with the idea of creating a Vermont-branded dairy. This dairy marketing assessment is meant to get at some of those details.

When you get into the nitty gritty of this stuff, it’s amazing the complications. There’s something called slotting fees, where in order just to get a space in the dairy case you have to pay. That is really tough, especially when you get into the bigger supermarkets.

We’ve also created a working group to study soil conservation practices and payment for ecosystem services.

In the past, we’ve allowed for people to come to a farm and have an animal slaughtered there for their use. It was difficult for farmers who wanted to sell beef cattle to people because we were allowing for only a single owner in order to meet requirements with the federal government. Well, things have loosened a little bit and it turns out there can be multiple owners, which makes beef cattle much more accessible if you allow multiple owners.

O.P.: So in other words, people could buy a cow and then share the meat amongst themselves.

C.P.: Exactly right. Although I will say that two or four would be better because there are haves and there are quarters. But three would work, too, Olga.

So so we included that and we also included language that requires that the animals be killed by a humane method.

The forestry aspects of this bill include a working group to study Vermont forest carbon sequestration and carbon markets. And this is really exciting. The idea is to basically get the state forests involved selling carbon credits to the California carbon market.

There is a Nature Conservancy project, and if I’m recalling correctly the optimal amount of land involved is something like 3,000 acres. There would have to be an inventory of the trees, then a verification of that inventory. Then, it’s put out to sell carbon credits. It’s actually an opportunity for the state of Vermont to see some revenue from such a sale.

So it’s very interesting, very innovative, and we’re hoping to get in on that at some point. I think it probably would take a couple of years at least.

I’m looking forward to moving forward on that more next year. We’ll see what the working group comes back and tells us.

O.P.: There’s so much talk with climate change about how we sequester carbon. What’s exciting is this program if it works could help us utilize resources we already have.

C.P.: Exactly. Rather than create new resources to deal with the issue.

O.P.: So it’s it’s really again one of those win-win-win things.

C.P.: Another reason our logging and timber harvest markets are struggling is that loggers are under stress because of of high worker’s comp costs.

And so one of our provisions has to do with logger safety and our hope of bringing down workers comp costs and also keeping the people who do this work safer.

They’ve implemented a similar program in the state of Maine, and they’ve seen their workers comp costs come down.

The program allows for the development of curriculums for master logger certification, and it helps pay for the education that is involved with obtaining that designation. And that is going to move forward. So we’re excited about that.

We were sunsetting the program of providing a sales tax exemption that’s been in place on advanced wood boilers. We had allowed it for a certain number of years. We repealed the sunset so that that’s going to continue to go on.

Advanced wood boilers are excellent in terms of efficiency — and we produce them right here in the state of Vermont.

I’d like to mention pollinator protection.

We’ve banned the use of products containing neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide that was developed to replace organophosphates, which were incredibly dangerous to humans, to mammals in general. But we are banning the household use of products containing neonicotinoids starting July 1. So that’s now in effect. The bill increases the fee for registering these products, and the money that will be raised by increasing the registration cost will be used to hire a pollinator specialist and an enforcement specialist at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.

The average consumer does not pay that fee; it’s paid by the large companies that make these products.

So that’s a good thing that they will be able to help people, especially beekeepers.

It establishes a voluntary Vermont beekeeper educational program, which is meant to educate beekeepers about the importance of treating for varroa mites. As a beekeeper myself, I know how devastating varroa mites can be. I lost my first colony several years ago because of mites.

The other thing that’s really bad about varroa mites is that they have a negative effect on our native pollinators in that they spread viruses that are devastating not only to our honeybees, which are domestic insects, but to our native bumblebees and other pollinators that fly around and help us.

We know that one out of every three bites of food we take is the result of pollination. So this is pretty important.

Finally, the hemp bill essentially brings us into compliance with the Federal Farm Act of 2018. The CBD market in particular is just burgeoning. It’s wonderful. And there are some great companies in the state that are providing CBD products for folks. But a $25 registration fee does not really cut it for the agency when people are planting thousands of acres of hemp.

So we’ll have to have additional inspections done and fees increased for all of us. I also grew some hemp last summer and I’m going to grow a little bit this summer, but I’m into what you’d call the de minimus category.

O.P.: Meaning very little?

C.P.: There will continue to be that category for $25, but people who are growing under that category will only be allowed to grow for their own personal use or for gifting. You cannot get involved commercially.

Those increased fees will fund three positions at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. One is a lab and certifications analyst, one is an enforcement specialist, and one is an attorney counsel position. So we’re feeling good about that.

We’ve gotten everything according to Hoyle with the Federal Farm Act. We’re in compliance, and the folks who are raising hemp will be in compliance as long as people have gotten the proper license.

O.P.: And we should give a little context here about why the state needed to update its language around hemp. That’s in part because Vermont allowed it to be grown quite a few years ago, even before the federal government started to OK it.

C.P.: That’s correct. But farmers who grew hemp back then were potentially subject to land forfeiture and other legal problems if the federal government came after them. In a way we felt that it was probably unlikely they would, with Colorado legalizing marijuana and such. But we wanted farmers to be aware of the fact that while we were allowing it on a state level it was not allowed legally on the federal level.

So we came into compliance with the latest Federal Farm Act. As long as we’re in compliance with that, then anybody in the state who grows according to state law will be in compliance with the federal law as well.

O.P.: One last thing quickly I’d like to touch on: was there some work done for Farm to Plate just to make sure the program will last several more years?

C.P.: Yes, yes. So Farm to Plate — I referenced them earlier regarding the bright spot in agriculture in the state — realized, ‘Hey, we were created in 2010 for 10 years and what’s going on?’

So there was initial thought that they needed to be reauthorized but in fact they did not. However, they felt that there might be a benefit to making some slight language changes in their mission. So one of the changes was to reference the word “sustainable” and then they asked to talk about improving soils, water, and resiliency of the working landscape in the face of climate change, which I thought was a positive step.

And so they are now they’re going to continue until 2031.

O.P.: I think one thing that always stands out for me when I’m looking at agricultural- or forestry-related issues is that there are so many times we look at bills that go through the Legislature and they touch on so many different aspects of our lives, like an economic development bill or a revenue bill or something. But they’re still kind of done in a silo.

With agriculture and forestry, you can’t do anything in a silo because the environment doesn’t work in a silo.

C.P.: Absolutely. Yeah. When I look at the Farm to School program, what an amazing situation that is. It was meant to get more nutritious food on our school kids’ lunch plates. Now in many cases their schools are serving not only lunch but breakfast and in some cases an early dinner.

When kids eat better and they’re better nourished and they’re eating fresher healthier food, they learn better. So those educational dollars that we talk about and sometimes squawk about are being spent so much more wisely because kids are better able to learn.

At the same time, local farmers are benefiting because schools are purchasing more from them, so their economy is better off.

And we know for every dollar we spend at a local farmer, there’s a multiplier effect of 60 cents in the local community.

So it’s a quadruple win there.

You know, we all eat. There are people who squawk about agriculture and how it’s polluted the land, polluted our water, or whatever. But in fact, everybody generally eats at least three times a day. And we need food.

And so how do you produce that food in the best way possible?

All of these bills that we’ve worked on this last year have been meant to improve that situation. How do we raise food? How do we nourish our people? Improve soil health at the same time and improve water quality? Sequester carbon and become more resilient? It all works together.

You asked me at the beginning of this conversation why I still do this, and it’s things like this that get me really excited about agriculture, forestry, and the future of not only our state but our country and our kids and everything.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #517 (Wednesday, July 3, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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