Agriculture secretary’s statement provokes angry response from Senate leader

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(Host) Vermont’s Agriculture Secretary called on the Senate Thursday to pass a key farm bill. The secretary says the Senate isn’t holding up its end of an agreement to pass legislation this session dealing with genetically engineered seeds, amending Vermont’s Right to Farm Law and enforcement of water quality standards for farms. The comments drew an immediate and angry response from the Democratic leader of the Senate.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The crowd of legislators and advocates that filled the Cedar Creek room at the State House was evidence of the interest in the farm legislation. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr called his first ever news conference to push for Senate passage of a House bill that combines changes to the right to farm law and clean water regulations for farms.

Kerr says that bill and one on labeling genetically engineered seeds are part of a package deal between the administration and the legislature and both should be passed this session. He says the governor has done his part by signing a bill requiring the labeling of genetically engineered seeds.

(Kerr) “Curiously, the other part of the package – the right to farm and water quality – seems to be facing a different fate. The Senate appears to have decided to place these measures in the Judiciary Committee as the Legislature nears adjournment.”

(Zind) Kerr says the Senate needs to uphold its end of the bargain. After the secretary’s comments an angry Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch stepped from the crowd to defend the Senate.

Turning to farmers who accompanied Kerr, Welch told them the Senate is acting in their best interests to make sure a good law is passed.

(Welch) “And I am appalled that senior leaders of this state would politicize issues of such importance about our economy about the hard work of farmers. And we are going to do better for you, you can be assured of that. Thank you very much.” (Sound of applause.)

(Zind) Welch says there’s concern about the constitutionality of the amended right to farm section of the bill and the Senate Judiciary Committee is looking into the question. Kerr produced a letter from a Vermont Law School professor saying the law would be constitutional.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, say the section of the House bill dealing with water quality on farms with animals needs to be strengthened. Under the bill, if large and medium sized farms follow accepted agricultural practices they’re presumed to be in compliance federal clean water regulations.

Ben Davis of the Vermont Public Interest research group says rather than presuming farms are in compliance, the state should monitor and assist farms to make sure they’re not polluting. Davis says the job should be in the hands of ANR, the Agency of Natural Resources – not the Agency of Agriculture as the bill calls for.

(Davis) “We feel that there is already permitting authority by the Agency of Natural Resources to go out and work with farmers, give them these federal permits that they need. The general permitting process that’s being promoted by the Agency of Agriculture is not going to satisfy the requirements of the Clean Water Act.”

(Zind) Davis says under the House bill, Vermont’s requirements for large animal farms would be among the weakest in the country.

Kerr disagrees. He says the House bill mirrors the standards of the environmental protection agency. He says because of a backlog at ANR, the job of making sure farms are in compliance should be left to the Agency of Agriculture, which is more familiar with farm operations.

(Kerr) “So we think by hewing to EPA standards, the federal standards, by working with ANR where that makes sense but without letting it go to ANR and have it fall into that morass of backlog, we can actually continue to make faster progress on water quality on farms than the state’s making on water quality on stormwater runoff.”

(Zind) Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears told Kerr afterward that it will be a struggle for his committee to complete work on the bill before the end of the session, but he hopes they’ll be able to craft legislation that has bipartisan support.

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

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