Douglas seeks to strengthen Right to Farm law

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(Host) The Douglas Administration wants to strengthen a law that protects farmers against lawsuits brought by neighbors. At the same time, Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says the state may need additional authority to regulate farms that cause pollution.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr is in the Statehouse a lot these days as he lobbies lawmakers to strengthen Vermont’s right to farm law. He says a state Supreme Court ruling in October could expose more farmers to lawsuits from neighbors.

(Kerr) “The Supreme Court started down the road, let me say that if a farm changes its mode of operation, it somehow changed to the point that it shouldn’t have the higher protection under the right to farm law. That frightens us because there isn’t a farm in Vermont that isn’t going to change.”

(Dillon) The high court ruled in a case brought by neighbors of an Orwell apple operation. The neighbors, George and Carole Trickett, charged that the apple grower ran an around-the-clock packing and trucking operation. They said that diesel trucks idled non-stop just a few feet from their bedroom and that orchard owner Peter Ochs, allowed pesticide-contaminated water to run off on their property.

Kerr says that in addition to strengthening the right to farm statute, the Legislature should also give the state more power to respond to complaints against farms.

(Kerr) “If the General Assembly determines that noise, odor, and those so-called aesthetic issues are important, they need to give the department the regulatory authority to enforce some set of standards.”

(Dillon) But an environmental activist who has followed the case says the state already has enough authority to resolve environmental complaints. Annette Smith, of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, testified recently before the House Agriculture Committee. She says the record shows a history of lax enforcement.

(Smith) “What my testimony to the House Agriculture Committee showed was that we are not regulating manure run-off; we are not regulating pesticide run-off; we are not regulating animal welfare. And so before anybody talks about strengthening or changing the right to farm law, we need to take a look at how we are regulating and enforcing our agriculture operations so they are in compliance with what we would all consider to be reasonable practices.”

(Dillon) Agriculture Secretary Kerr disagrees. He says the state has followed up on a number of complaints about the orchard. But Smith says state knew in 1995 that there were problems with pesticide runoff but didn’t take action until 2001.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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