The 2022 legislative session took place at 10 a.m. at the Statehouse on January 4. More than 120 representatives made the trip to Montpellier to be present while we worked and adopted several resolutions that allowed us to return home and conduct our business from a distance.
It was wonderful to be back at the Statehouse to see people in person, albeit masked and from a distance. Hopefully in a few weeks the Omicron variant will have run its course in Vermont and we can meet in person again.
The rest of the week our committee worked virtually, receiving updates and briefings from the Agriculture, Food and Markets Agency (AAFM); advocates of the agricultural sector; and our legislative counsel, Michael O’Grady.
O’Grady provided an overview of some of the things we might hear about and want to continue pursuing during the session. These include the work of the Dairy Working Group; compost, including digestate, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances) and microplastics; the work of the Climate Council; Right to agricultural protection; US EPA rule waters; Payment for ecosystem services; financing of water quality; pesticide litigation; slaughter regulations; the definition of agriculture with respect to ancillary agricultural enterprises; the federal agricultural bill of 2023; and concerns related to African swine flu. Obviously, we have some work to do.
We were fortunate to have updates from seven AAFM staff, including Secretary Anson Tebbetts. One of Anson’s concerns is the mental health of our farmers, especially dairy farmers. Things were pretty tough before COVID-19 hit, with low milk prices and higher input costs, but some of these challenges have been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. There is a shortage of drivers to pick up and deliver the milk, and labor issues extend to shortages of dairy processors and farm workers. Companies hire at good wages with signing bonuses.
A significant sum, $ 500,000, has been devoted to the mental health of farmers and farm workers. Farm First is a nonprofit program sponsored jointly by the AAFM of Vermont and the Invest EAP Centers for Welfare of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. The services, free to all Vermont farmers and their families, aim to reduce the stress experienced in our farming industry. Farm First was founded in Vermont in 2009 after a tragic incident in New York State. If you are a farmer having issues or know someone who is, call 802-318-5538 during daytime working hours or 877-493-6216 to reach their 24/7 hotline. You can also email Karen Crowley at [email protected]. Do not hesitate to contact them, you could save a life.
Secretary Tebbetts also touched on some of the other stressors in the agricultural sector, including the need for affordable housing and decent wages for agricultural workers. The pandemic has added to the need for more meat processing facilities, and we have spent over $ 500,000 to expand meat processing plants.
We were delighted to learn that 94% of the phosphorus reductions in the Lake Champlain watershed were due to agriculture and that there will be $ 4.9 million available over the next four years for projects. phosphorus reduction as part of the Pay for Performance program.
Our committee has been tasked with examining and making a recommendation regarding the proposals included in the Budget Adjustment Act. An additional amount of over $ 5 million has been suggested by the administration for water sanitation projects, including best management practices. As with many things, the costs have been higher for some of these projects and the extra money will be used to cover the resulting cost overruns. Given the importance of these projects for improving water quality, our committee unanimously recommended supporting these increased investments to the House Appropriations Committee.
We were also interested to hear about the vital role the Vermont Agriculture and Environmental Lab played during the pandemic, including COVID-19 testing. They were able to change direction as certain analysis needs diminished to increase their work in other departments, notably the analysis of drinking water. Their last audit showed excellent results.
As a reminder, as the 2022 session begins, legislators can be contacted by email using the first initial of our first name, last name and @ leg.state.vt.us. For example mine is [email protected]. You can view my website at www.carolynpartridge.com where I post my weekly articles. To follow legislative action, visit the website at www.legislature.vermont.gov, where you can find all the standing committees and follow us on YouTube. When we get back to Montpellier, you can call the Statehouse toll-free at 1-800-322-5616, leave a message with the Sergeant-at-Arms, and they will forward the message to me. I will respond as quickly as possible. Please feel free to share your thoughts, concerns and ideas with me. Together we govern!
State Representative Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, accepts emails at [email protected]. The opinions expressed by the columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.