Hinsdale plays dual roles in large farm policy debate

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(Host) In Vermont’s debate over legislation regulating large farms and the right to farm, one man is in an unusual position. Clark Hinsdale, who wants to build a large dairy farm in Charlotte, is also president of the Vermont Farm Bureau. And the Farm Bureau is the state’s leading farm organization, which provides testimony to legislators on agriculture matters.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) When Clark Hinsdale sat down to testify before the House Agriculture Committee last week, Middlebury Democrat Betty Nuovo had a simple question.

(Nuovo) “Are you talking for yourself or are you talking as the president of the Farm Bureau?”

(Dillon) The lines get blurred because Hinsdale has both a personal and professional stake in the issue. He heads the state’s most influential farm organization and his application to expand his farm faces stiff opposition from a neighborhood group in Charlotte. He wore both hats as he sat in the witness chair last week.

(Hinsdale) “The right to farm testimony that Art and I reviewed is Farm Bureau policy. The purpose for logging in as farmer from the town of Charlotte is for the possibility that some of the discussion may stray over to specific examples that involved our farm.”

(Dillon) Hinsdale wants to build a two acre manure pit and a new barn to house 684 animals. Later, he hopes to expand the operation to 2,500 cows. His neighbors are worried about contaminants leaking into their drinking water. They charge that Hinsdale’s lobbying clout in the Statehouse could limit their own legal options. Hinsdale has lobbied for extending legal immunity for farmers from lawsuits brought by neighbors.

Jack Galt is a member of Citizens for Safe Farming, which opposes the Hinsdale project. He listened as the Farm Bureau president testified last week on the so-called right to farm law.

(Galt) “I think that changes to the right to farm law certainly work to his advantages as an individual proposing a very large farm in a location where there isn’t one at this point.”

(Dillon) Galt says the Charlotte farmer has misled lawmakers about the opposition to his farm project. In testimony before the committee, for example, Hinsdale said that no one lived within a half mile of his project. The opponents say about 23 houses are located within a half-mile of the site.

Hinsdale also charged that his neighbors refused to meet with him “during the entire process.” In fact, members of the group say they’ve sat down with Hinsdale several times to discuss his project. After Galt confronts Hinsdale outside the committee room, the farmer offers an apology.

(Hinsdale) “If I misspoke that they never met with us, I apologize. They met with us on four occasions.”

(Dillon) The dispute between the two sides can be heated. Hinsdale obtained a confidential draft of an application for funding for the citizens group. He showed the document to the Agriculture Committee and he told lawmakers it paints an inaccurate and unfair picture of his farm plans. Outside the hearing room, Hinsdale refuses to tell the neighbors how he got the confidential document. The confrontation becomes a Statehouse stand-off.

(Opponent) “We’d like to know how you got that, actually. This was never submitted as a grant application.”
(Hinsdale) “Well, that’s interesting, because a not for profit organization received it.”
(Opponent) “It was not submitted, that’s why it says confidential.”
(Opponent) “Who is the non profit organization?”
(Hinsdale) “Now that is confidential. That is confidential.”

(Dillon) Although Hinsdale has testified about his own case, he says his positions are always in line with Farm Bureau policy. He says it’s his opponents who want an unfair advantage in the law.

(Hinsdale) “The waters got muddied when the Citizens for Safe Farming testimony came in where it was very clear to me that their efforts were solely aimed at creating a superior environment to sue us in. And those particular recommendations, were they accepted by the Legislature, would be very damaging to Vermont Agriculture as a whole.”

(Dillon) The right-to-farm and large farm bills have a long way to go. They still have to come out of committee and go before the full House and the full Senate.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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