Bill to Improve Farm Soil Quality Gets Lukewarm Reception

Published: 3/29/2018 11:55:08 PM
Modified: 3/29/2018 11:55:19 PM

Montpelier — A bill directing subsidies to farmers who take steps to improve their soil quality met with suspicion in the Senate Committee on Agriculture on Wednesday, with one senator complaining that it’s an example of Vermont farmers “taking it on the chin.”

The bill, titled S.903, would reward farmers for “regenerative agriculture,” which is described as farming practices that “reverse climate change by rebuilding organic matter in soil” with the ultimate effect of reducing carbon and improving water quality.

The legislation would give farmers state recognition for their efforts and subsidize their efforts with money from the state’s Clean Water Fund. It also would write into law an existing program engineered by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets called the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program.

Under that program, farmers receive a variety of testing, planning and other incentives to pursue certain environmental-quality standards. Farms that meet standards to be laid out in the new law will receive state certification and signage to recognize their environmental stewardship, according to material the agency supplied to lawmakers in support of the bill.

It’s a voluntary program and would remain that way, said Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.

Smith said the stewardship certification is intended not to require farmers to do much beyond following the law. “We wanted to find a way to thank the farmers, to let the community know that the farmers had met all the (required agricultural practices) and gone some level beyond that,” he told the committee.

The bill follows required agricultural practices, or RAPs, a set of standards farmers legally must meet in order to reduce their rate of water pollution. Vermont farmers are among the state’s top polluters, and they’re the primary source of phosphorus pollution that causes toxic bacterial blooms each summer in Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi and others, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Vermonters are expected to pay hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades to subsidize pollution-control measures on farms in order to bring these lakes and other public waters into compliance with state and federal clean water laws.

Sen. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, initially panned the bill.

“Farmers just take it right on the chin every time you turn around, and it’s unfair,” Branagan said.

Smith said the bill was actually meant to help farmers. “This was a way of thanking the farmer,” he said.

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