A Look at Legislative Changes for Vermont Agriculture in 2021
2021 Legislative Developments Impacting Vermont Agriculture
By Anson Tebbetts
July 1, 2021 | Montpelier, VT - 2020 was a year of turbulence, uncertainty and change, with many important societal issues highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has been deeply involved in many of these issues impacting Vermonters, while ensuring that important agriculture considerations continue to stay at the forefront of ongoing legislative discussions. We wanted to update you on some of the important developments coming out from the 2021 Legislature that impact Vermont’s agricultural landscape.
Each year, bills that are passed by the Legislature come to the Governor’s desk and are signed into law, officially changing the House or Senate Bill to an Act. Governor Phil Scott signed the Appropriations Bill (H. 439) on June 8, 2021, authorizing the Agency of Agriculture’s budget along with the budgets of all state government in Act 74.
Act 74 – An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government authorized a number of important funding items important to our agricultural economy and landscape, including:
- The Agency base budget request for Fiscal Year(FY) ‘21-‘22 - $31,410,614
- The Working Lands Enterprise program - $2,594,000
- Agricultural Fairs and Field Days - $500,000
Other funding in Act 74 that will impact agriculture but is not in the Agency’s budget include:
- Vermont Housing and Conservation Board - $10,000,000
- The Farm and Forest Viability Program - $50,000
Act 9 - an act relating to COVID-19 relief, included additional funding for:
- The Working Lands Enterprise Program - $3,000,000
- At least $500,000 allocated for grants related to slaughter, meat processing and meat processing training proposals.
- Payment for Ecosystem Services - $250,000
Act 43 - An act relating to the Current Use (Use Value Appraisal) program. Under Current Use farmers are required to certify that the land enrolled in Current Use is still in active agricultural production by each November 1st. Should farmers miss the annual deadline, the legislature provided potential flexibility in Act 43 to prove continued compliance: “the (Tax) Commissioner may waive the certification requirement, provided the Commissioner obtains, through other means, satisfactory information that the agricultural land continues or agricultural buildings continue to meet the other requirements for enrollment.”
Act 43 also updated the Current Use Program to allow for very small (1/10th of an acre) solar arrays. The land under these small solar arrays will not need to be removed from the Current Use Program.
Act 67 - An act relating to equitable access to a high-quality education through community schools. This Act establishes that schools are required to report an estimate of the percentage of the cost of all locally produced food purchased (beginning with meals served in 2020-2021 school year). It also makes grant funding available to support schools to purchase local foods, based on meeting eligibility criteria.
- $500,000 appropriation was made to the Agency of Education for one year of a local foods incentive grant program;
- A Task Force on Universal School Lunch was also created to offer recommendations on how to incorporate universal school lunch in all public schools at no cost to students or families.
Act 31 - An act relating to limiting liability for agritourism. This Act reduces some liability risks for agritourism activities that meet the Act’s requirements. The Act allows farms to shift responsibility for the “inherent risks” of agritourism activities to consumers when consumers are properly forewarned. The statute defines “Agritourism activity” as “an interactive or passive activity that is carried out for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes on a farm and includes farming, food production, historical, cultural, pick-your own, and nature-based activities.” “Agritourism activity” in this Act does not include on-farm lodging, retail establishments, or farm stands. It is essential that farms read the statute and post and maintain the exact required warning notice and include it in every written contract to benefit from this liability protection.
Act 47 – An Act related to miscellaneous agricultural subjects. This Act addresses an effort to improve the State’s capacity to maintain a sufficient food supply during times of emergency or other food insecurity events. The Agency is tasked with bringing together a group to work on this update to the state’s emergency management planning. This group will include:
- food insecure individuals
- retail grocery store owners
- food distributors
- organizations that serve food insecure individuals
- the Department of Emergency Management; and
- the Agency of Human Services
This group will evaluate the activities surrounding food insecurity during the COVID 19 pandemic and review the potential for local food to supply needs during emergencies.
Act 47 also addresses the following issues:
- Clarifies the name and intent of the state-funded veterinary loan repayment program as the Food Animal Veterinarian Education Loan Repayment Program. Recipient veterinarians must devote a percentage of their time to food animal veterinary services. Qualifying service includes practice on livestock species, poultry and bees.
- Addresses personal use/on farm slaughter animal limits by doubling the number of animals and total live weight limit to 30 swine, 10 cattle, 80 sheep or goats, and any combination of swine, cattle, sheep, or goats, provided that not more than 12,000 pounds of the live weight of livestock are slaughtered per year. This statute also removed the sunset provision so the law will no longer expire in 2023.
- Clarifies and modernizes the definition of “livestock dealer” to refer to someone who is buying and/or selling livestock on his or her own accord or for commission, outside of his or her own farming operation. Also included is the ability for the Secretary of Agriculture to determine that a livestock dealing license is necessary in cases when individuals are intentionally subverting the intention of the law by using a “farming” exemption.
- Adds clarity to the definition of a “commercial weighing and measuring device” located in Title 9 Chapter 73 Weights & Measures Law. This will be helpful to businesses to understand what weighing and measuring devices, such as retail scales, need to be licensed and inspected by the VT Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets. The devices, such as scales, that do fall under licensing and inspection requirements are those used in direct sale situations where both the buyer and seller are present at the point of sale. This includes locations such as grocery stores, farmers markets, retail meat markets, and transfer stations. Scales being used to process, pack, and manufacture goods, or monitor inventory, are not required to be licensed or inspected. Most of these scales are located in factories, processing, and packing plants.
- Amends 6 V.S.A. § 563 enabling the Secretary to continue to operate Vermont’s Hemp Program under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program authorization and for as long as “federal law authorizes continuation of the hemp pilot program”. Currently the hemp pilot program is set to sunset on January 1, 2022.
Act 22 – An Act relating to Tier II raw milk producers, expands sales capacity by allowing them to contract with a farm stand or community-supported agriculture organization (CSA) to sell raw milk. Farm stands and CSAs share legal liability for the raw milk with the farm producer. Tier II producers must notify the VAAFM dairy section prior to having their milk sold at a farm stand or CSA.
Act 49 – An Act Relating to Establishing the Agricultural Innovation Board while simultaneously repealing the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council. The Agricultural Innovation Board has 13 members and is tasked with providing policy recommendations to achieve the following:
- Reducing pesticide usage in the state
- Reducing adverse effects of pesticides on human and environmental health
- Reducing plastic use and waste generation in farming
Act 49 also repeals the Seed Review Panel and transfers the responsibility to review seed traits of new genetically engineered seeds proposed for sale to the Agricultural Innovation Board.
Act 41 - An act relating to the regulation of agricultural inputs for farming, including:
- Amending the definition of “farming” under Act 250 to include importation of up to 2,000 cubic yards per year of food residuals or food processing residuals onto a farm for production of compost, provided that the compost is principally used on the farm where it is produced or the compost is produced on a small poultry farm.
- Adding definitions of “farm,” “food processing residuals,” “food residuals,” “principally used,” and “small farm” to provide clarity on the terms used in the definition of “farming.” The act amends the definition of farming under the Required Agricultural Practices so that it is consistent with the amended definition of farming under Act 250.
- Establishing an agricultural residuals management program at AAFM to manage residual wastes generated, imported, or managed on farms. AAFM shall adopt rules for the management of food residuals and food processing residuals on a farm.
- Extends the authority for the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) & Soil Health Working Group to exist and meet through February 1, 2023. A final report of the PES Working Group will now be due to the Legislature on January 15, 2023. The PES Working Group was authorized by Act 83 of 2019, reauthorized and reconstituted by Act 129 of 2020, and funded by Act 9 of 2021. The PES Working Group is meeting throughout 2021 and the latest updates about the process are available at https://agriculture.vermont.gov/pes
While many of these changes may go unnoticed by most Vermonters, they will have significant positive impacts on our state’s agriculture industry, businesses, and in many cases, families. My thanks go to all the members of the legislature, agriculture officials and representatives of the Agency of Agriculture for your hard work moving these important legal changes forward for Vermonters.
Secretary, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets