Ag Impacted by VT Legislative Session

By Meg Nelson, NEAFA VT Legislative Representative

Vermont’s 2019 Legislative session was busy with agricultural and agribusiness related topics. Ranging from neonicotinoids to water quality, our policy makers were busy taking testimony and mulling each subject carefully. Industry leaders and producers raised numerous concerns over changes to current wetland permitting, treated seed articles, pesticide restrictions, and increases to the minimum wage. The session wrapped up a week later than scheduled to finalize the written bills and get them to the Governor’s desk.

H.205, which restricts homeowner’s use of neonicotinoids, has passed and was signed into law. The bill raised the pesticide applicator fee but exempted treated seeds from the restrictions of neonicotinoid use. The bill was designed to protect bee colonies, although many believed it did not follow the science on this issue. Next year we will face new challenges in order to protect other pesticides that are currently under scrutiny.

H. 525 is the House Agricultural and Forestry Committee’s miscellaneous agriculture bill, and it was signed into law. It contains important language concerning wetland permit changes, ecosystem service payments, and mandatory seed sale reporting for seed retailers. Wetland permitting fees have been capped at $200 per project and requires collaboration between both state agencies of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The prospect of payment for good land and water stewardship, as prescribed by the ecosystem service payments, is positive for Vermont landowners. Seed companies will now have to report to the Agency of Agriculture exactly how much treated and non-treated seed is sold each year. Changes were also made to the sale of unpasteurized (raw) milk within the state, making it legal to sell raw milk off farm directly to consumers.

S. 160 is the Senate Agriculture Committee’s miscellaneous agriculture bill and was signed into law. It overlaps key parts of H. 525, as both contain ecosystem service language. Unfortunately, S.160 will require each new genetically modified seed trait introduced to the state to be reviewed by a “stakeholder panel” before sale is legal in the state. The panel will include agricultural industry leaders and representatives from the Agency of Agriculture. While this requirement is not ideal, agricultural leaders will be part of the conversation when new traits are introduced to the state.

Minimum wage and paid family leave efforts were big topics circulating the Statehouse hallways this year. Nothing was decided, but conversations will likely continue next session. Proposals this year worked to bring the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2024. This potential change remains daunting for many small business owners, specifically those that offer other incentives such as housing, transportation and/or utilities to bring employee pay above minimum wage. Paid family leave had a few different versions of voluntary and mandatory programs suggested, and again, small businesses would be heavily affected.

The 2019 VT legislative session posed several challenges to the agriculture community, and more can be expected next year. The Vermont agricultural community is no stranger to heavy regulation and water quality parameters. In time, the industry hopes ecosystem services can provide some financial relief, provided further regulation does not undermine our efforts to be good stewards of land and water.