Agriculture Agency concludes public meetings on farm legislation

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(Host) The Agency of Agriculture concluded a series of meetings with farmers Wednesday night to get their feedback on two key pieces of legislation before lawmakers this session.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the farmers were generally supportive of proposed new rules that would govern how they operate.

(Zind) Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr led off last night’s meeting with an explanation of the proposed changes to Vermont’s 25-year old Right to Farm Law. The legislation discourages suits by people who move in next to an already established farming operation and allows farms to make reasonable changes to the size of their operations without fear of lawsuits.

The law would also better protect farms that follow what are considered accepted agricultural practices. Kerr says that’s so farmers – and people who live next to them – have a clearer idea of what smells, sounds and pests are part of a normal farm operation. Kerr says while the changes don’t guarantee farmers immunity from lawsuits, they’re important because farms are increasingly sharing the landscape.

(Kerr) “I think it’s in our self-interest to recognize that the culture of Vermont has changed and is going to continue to change. The state is suburbanizing. Folks with different attitudes are coming in.”

(Zind) Kerr says without clarifying the Right to Farm law, there could be more nuisance lawsuits against farmers. Cabot dairy farmer Jackie Folsom says she agrees with Kerr that it’s better for farmers to define acceptable practices, instead of letting the courts decide through lawsuits.

(Folsom) “The right to farm and any of the other regulations that are coming down the pike, the farmers really need to be there and to have a proactive voice in it rather than letting people tell us what they think we should do.”

(Zind) South Royalton farmer Suzanne Long says she agrees a good Right to Farm law is important. But Long told the group that unless the state is careful in defining acceptable farm practices, it could open the door for more large farms and the odor, flies and noise associated with them.

(Long) “I think if we aren’t aware, we could be a great face for large farms to come. If we accept what’s normal out there. I think what’s normal might not be acceptable to a lot of people, including farmers.”

(Zind) Farmers also discussed proposed changes to water quality regulations. A larger number of Vermont farms will have to meet federal water quality standards. Farmers said they were concerned about who would pay for the changes necessary to meet the standards. Kerr says the goal is for the government to pay 85 percent of the costs.

Finally, there was some discussion over a bill requiring labeling and reporting of the genetically engineered seeds. Until now the GE seeds used in Vermont have been corn and soybeans grown on farms. But Kerr says genetically engineered vegetable seeds will soon be on the market and available to home gardeners.

This was the last of four meetings held around the state to talk to farmers about the legislation. Kerr says the consensus among those who have attended the meetings has been that the regulations are workable.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Randolph Center.

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