Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The End of the Session

It looks as though today will be the last day of the 2011 legislative session. Everyone in the building is exhausted, and ready to go home. But the successes of this session are many, and I feel most grateful to have had the privilege of bearing witness to them. I have spent countless hours in the Senate and House Agriculture committee rooms, hours more conversing with lawmakers, and hours still observing the floor. Each and every hour has been worth it. I would like to take this blog to wrap up the various legislation we have been tracking, and let you readers know the status of things. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Vermont legislature, and the town of Montpelier for the edification they have provided me this semester. This summer, I will be working as an agricultural liaison intern to the Governor of Vermont- a job I never would have gotten without the help of others. Thank you!
Raw Milk Cheese Classes
Our long labored-over, S.105 passed the Senate on Monday. After extensive testimony in the House and Senate Ag committees, following initial negotiations between the Agency of Agriculture and Rural Vermont, it was determined that the language we agreed upon with the Agency should be removed. Instead, regarding raw milk processing classes, the House asked the Agency to simply interpret the statute differently, rather than to include language in the Misc. Agriculture Bill (S.105.) This news was well-taken by Rural Vermont, although it did make us feel that we had wasted some time. S.105 did, however, include language that clarified the definition of raw milk, which should prove helpful to farmers. For now, we can put the raw milk classes issue to bed, and our organization can resume instruction!

Plum Creek
The Plum Creek language for retroactive exemption and further tax breaks, was also abandoned. This was at the request of leadership and I am very pleased to see that we are not codling these environmental criminals in our state.

The Jobs Bill
The jobs bill (H.287) is still in conference committee and it is unclear how much of the language pertaining to improving agricultural infrastructure will remain upon passage. We are continuing to watch H.287. H.287 also included the econometric model, which at the request of BGS, will likely be removed (much to my, and that of Senator Pollina's chagrin.) From what I now understand, much of the agricultural language is being shifted into the Budget bill to ensure its passage. Either way, the language will promote agriculture within the state and is surely a step in the right direction.

Seed- Saving Resolution (Representative French)
At the caucus on Monday, Representative French introduced a resolution that would protect the right of Vermonters to save their seeds. This resolution was signed on to by many, and when it came to the floor was directed to House Agriculture. There it will sit until January 2012, and I hope that Rural Vermont campaigns to promote its passage. This resolution is a perfect building block for bigger, broader legislation regarding seed politics, and I look forward to further developments in its wake.

On-Farm Slaughter
Well, we never did get Baruth (or anyone else for that matter) to present our on-farm slaughter resolution. We know that this legislation needs Agency support to move forward, and it is my hope that Rural Vermont will meet directly with the Agency to negotiate the issue. Several Representatives have also displayed interest in getting involved with on-farm slaughter resolutions or bills, which presents yet another opportunity to make this much-needed change here in Vermont.

It seems that my blogging days have almost come to a close. This semester has been invaluable. I have witnessed the shift in leadership- from Douglas to Shumlin, and the difference that has made. I have seen the monumental health care bill pass the House, Senate and conference committee. I have had the privilege of sitting in on countless committee meetings, hearing testimony from tens of people from around the state, working directly with the Agency and discussing a wide-array of topics within agriculture. I have gotten to know some of our lawmakers, and they have been generous with their advice, and their time. Each day at work this session was a good day at work (even when we got bad news.)
In Vermont, we are lucky to have agriculture protected and encouraged by our Senators and Representatives, but it is our job to push for the positive changes we want. Our working landscape is one of our greatest assets in the state, and working to protect it means promoting the livelihood of small farmers. I am honored to have been a part of the Rural Vermont staff and could not overstate my appreciation of my supervisor, Jared Carter. Finally, I want to thank you to my blog readers.

I leave you with this quote that is posted on the wall in the House Agriculture Committee Room:
There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth
The first is war. This is robbery.
The second is by commerce, which is generally cheating.
The third is by agriculture, the only honest way.
-Benjamin Franklin

Monday, April 18, 2011

H. 287: The Jobs Bill

On Friday morning, the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs passed amended version of H. 287, to be reconsidered by the House. The bill creates many programs that support agriculture in the state, including the new Local Food Coordinator position. The bill also contains a section entitled "State Purchase of Food and Agricultural Products." This section mandates that: " the commissioner shall use an econometric model developed and maintained jointly by the legislative and execute economists to evaluate the net cost and economic impact of purchasing food that is produced, grown or harvested on land physically located in Vermont, and of food and agricultural products that are processed or produced in Vermont." This is exactly the language we wanted in S. 63 (the bill Pollina sponsored in Senate Government Operations.) So this is a lesson in politics: if it dies somewhere, look somewhere else. Now, H.287 has to go back through the House for approval. I will let you know what happens.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

BooHoo for the Bureaucrat?

This week, in three different committees I heard testimony that suggested that unfair legislation was being laid upon bureaucrats or rich corporations. In the Senate Committee on Government Operations, State Building and General Services testified against any sort of local preference when buying food for state institutions. BGS also opposed the implementation of an econometric model for evaluation of local v. non local food. An econometric model could be used to evaluate any bid, to examine multiplier effects activated by choosing local bidders and would make a well-rounded assessment mathematically. I know that in previous posts I have mentioned proposed legislation that would necessitate a certain amount of food bought buy the state to be locally derived (grown, harvested and produced.) In fact, S.62, H. 287, S.99, H. 491, and S. 69 all contain a variety of "buy local" sections. Some instate a preferential percentage, some implement an econometric model,some are more vague, but BGS has discerned that all of these bills place an unfair burden on their operations. BGS instead is requesting for a one year respite on the issue, at which time it will report to the legislature on the "state" of local purchasing in the state. This respite is requested, despite the fact, BGS feels it is already doing an excellent job purchasing in a way that protects the best interest of the Vermonters. I would argue that although BGS is doing its best, it will certainly not seek to do any better, without legislation that forces it to do so. BGS says it buys 90% of its food locally, but their definition of local includes local vendors. BGS testified against local purchasing legislation in Senate Government Operations and in House Agriculture. In both cases, the chairs (along with the committees) were supportive of BGS, acting as though their biggest fear was that the bills would somehow inconvenience BGS. BGS is exactly the type of group that needs to be "inconvenienced" if we want to move forward with a sustainable model for our state. State entities are some of the groups that have the largest potential to make change, and if our law makers don't push them to do so, they will be allowed to stay stuck in their bureaucratic habits- poor purchasing practices that do the minimum to help Vermont businesses and farms.
This morning, I also heard testimony on the Plum Creek case: a cut contrary up in the Kingdom that violated UVA laws, resulting in the removal of thousands of acres from the program (much to Plum Creek's chagrin.) Both Senator Baruth (who I generally agree with/ adore) and Senator Starr sided with Plum Creek, in that they found "the punishment did not fit the crime." How can we justify excusing large corporate entities from following UVA rules, yet hold the small land-owner accountable? And, when did our law-makers start siding with the big guys instead of the little ones? Our governor is proposing a renaissance in agriculture. For the first time in years, we have a Governor who is pushing for real change to support Vermonters on the farm, but legislators have to pave the way. Backing BGS and Plum Creek acts not to pave the way for a new, farm economy, but rather to allow the road to stay full of unnecessary potholes deep from the depressing weight of bureaucratic and corporate agendas.

Cartoon: http://public-domain.zorger.com/a-book-of-nonsense/103-cartoon-very-sad-crying-man-shrugging-man-public-domain.gif

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food Sovereignty in VT

Today, I had a conversation with Bob St. Peter from Sedgwick Maine, to discuss the local food ordinance passed there. I wanted to know more about their process to activate their town on this issue, as well as see the viability of this type of rule-making. Bob told me that before the item was brought to town meeting, he and other ordinance draughters met with a variety of groups in the town: chamber of commerce, other local officials, town clubs, etc.. From there, the authors of the ordinance worked to connect with towns-people about the ordinance, in preparation for the vote. The ordinance passed unanimously in Sedgwick and Penobscot. Upon inquiring as to Sedgwick's interactions with the agency, Bob told me that as of yet they have seen no push back. Despite home bakeries, unregulated raw milk and meat production, the agency has yet to step in. Of course, State agencies do have the right to fine or penalize these towns, but would it be worth their time?
Bob has had hundreds of phone calls and emails, regarding the ordinance. People from all over the country want to get involved. The ordinance appears to cross boundaries and appeal to people across the board: Glenn Beck even featured the ordinance on his show. Although we can not let the libertarians or tea party activists take this state's rights issue away from us, we can be glad to see that this appeals to the masses. Bob reminded me gently that this was not a party issue. He quoted Wendell Berry's idea of the "Local Community Party," in arguing that his interests lay in sustaining communities in a time of ecological and economic crisis.
What if 50 towns in Vermont passed ordinances like these? What a radical push-back to the state/ federal food system that would be! We need to bring this idea home. Vermont is the perfect place for ideas like this to come to fruition. We have the right farmers, the right land, the right consumers and the right close-knit communities to make this happen.
Div III? I think so.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tracking Bills

Things in the legislature are heating up! Rural Vermont is tracking a variety of bills and I am finding myself bouncing between House Ag, Senate Ag., House Human Services, Senate Government Operations and Senate Economic Development Committees. I wanted to write down quick summaries of each bill- both for an update for my loyal readers and as a way of keeping myself in line.

H. 367: An act relating to labeling genetically engineered food, would require all foods with one or more GE ingredient to be labeled as such (House Human Services)

H.52: An act relating to the definition of poultry, would make quail, partridge and pheasant non-amenable species and thus not subject to mandatory inspection.

H. 287: An act relating to job creation and economic development, instigates several state programs to enhance local agriculture as a stimulus for the economy. It would create a large animal vet educational loan repayment fund, allocate money for farms to become GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified, implement a skilled meat cutter apprenticeship program, designate a local foods coordinator, and allot further funding to the Farm to Plate Initiative.

S.69 and S. 63 are both acts relation to purchasing of Vermont products and services. Either bill, if it were passed would provide a preference for local bidders on state contracts. Food that was grown, harvested and produced locally would be given an 8% preference in bids. S. 69 would also implement a task force to develop a fair-trade vermont labeling and certificaton system.

Misc Agriculture Bill or the Dairy Housekeeping Bill: Contains new language that will allow the raw dairy classes to be up and running again, as well as a number of legislative fixes to do with agriculture. Compost language has been tied on to the end of the bill, attempting to limit the rights' of municipal zoning regulators. This bill, although lengthy is comprehensive, clear and progressing in the right direct. It is currently still in draft form.

H.421: An Act Relating to the Use and Registration of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa seeds in Vermont, would require seed distributors to register purchasers and notify all residents within 3 miles of where the seeds will be planted.

H2A resolution: This joint resolution asks the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. House to extend the H2A program for dairy workers as they are not seasonal workers but work all year round. Passed in the House and is up in the Senate this week.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Catholic Priest Connects Firing Illegals to Greening Your Business

This is my most recent piece for the Center for a New Community. It will be published online next week:

The “green” movement has been co-opted by hundreds of groups, organization, and even corporations. Walmart , George W. Bush , and even the United States military have taken the word “green” and used it to their (fiscal) advantage. Green has come to mean anything that is sustainable or “earth-friendly.” It has also become a verb: a businesses can “green” themselves by limiting their energy footprint. When any entity uses the word to increase its’ financial profit, or for other such selfish purposes, I refer such use as “green-washing.” One of the more recent, and more creative co-opters of this term is The Greenery, a successful landscaping business in South Carolina. In a blog post on March 15, 2011, Dominique Peridans, a Roman Catholic priest and anti-immigration activist says that The Greenery is truly green: “If "green" means ‘environmentally sound,’ and legal hiring creates a more respectful, more harmonious work (and civic) environment, then perhaps it has gone really green. Those supportive of such business practices cannot but wish such companies continued growth. Go green!”
I wanted to look into Father Peridans’ speculation. Maybe he was right. Maybe hiring legal workers was the best way to make your company green. To conduct my research, I put myself into the role of a small business owner, looking to make my business more sustainable. I sat down and googled “greening your business.” The first link that pops up is from the NRDC . The website provides a guide to making your business have a lighter impact on the earth. Oddly enough, the suggestions refer to consumption practices: e.g. paper-use, energy use, water waste, and using non-toxic products. Nowhere, on any of the websites that came up upon googling, was there discussion of hiring only legal workers as a solution to business-greening.
According to the World Bank, 53% of Mexico’s population lives on less than $2 per day, and 24% lives on $1 per day, with an unemployment rate of 40% . Illegal immigrants have lower per capita and per household, incomes than all other households in the United States . Illegal immigrants often reside in substandard living conditions that are crowded . Generally, illegal immigrants don’t have many poseccions, and cannot drive/ do not own a car. So, what makes these employees so unsustainable? At carbonfootprint.com, I attempted calculating the carbon footprint of an illegal immigrant, finding that it was about 0.02 tons of carbon/ year, versus the average American’s 20.4 tons of carbon/ year . So, if your employee has a low carbon footprint, I suppose that would help green your business (since no one would be driving a Hummer to work at least.) Father Peridan appears to be reaching with his suggestion for the ultimate “greening” of your company. The motivation behind the co-option of “green” is clear: appeal to a wider (more liberal?) audience, and convince more folks to take an anti-immigration stance.
Knowing the insurmountable poverty and harsh living conditions that illegal immigrants face, I cannot blame any of our environmental plights upon them. In fact, if we were looking for ways to become more green, we could take a few pointers from the impoverished people of the world, who do so very little to contribute to our global ecological crisis.

Catherine Craig is a Hampshire College student and a legislative intern working in Vermont for a farmer advocy group. She was raised Catholic and is ashamed of how Father Peridans’ blog piece represents Catholicism. Father Peridan seems to have forgotten that Christ was an activist for the poor not for the businessman.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pete the Moose

Last year, at the very end of the session, legislation was passed that made it legal for people to own wild animals. The bill was snuck through on account of a very charismatic moose in the Northeast Kingdom: Pete. Pete was a baby moose, who was orphaned and raised back to health by a almost-too-perfectly-woodsy hermit. Long story short, Pete was raised on a ranch that was composed of wild and non-wild species mixed together, and this legislation made it so all those wild animals became the property of the ranch owner. Today, this legislation was reversed in the house and it is no longer legal to own wild animals in the state of Vermont.
The story of Pete the Moose brings to light the clearly yet unanswered question of humanity's relationship to the "wild," but in terms of law-making another issue is highlighted: unfitting, and devastating, laws can get made, if they are brought to committees at the right time and are allowed to fly under the radar. I was glad to see this legislation pass today, and to have last year's law reversed. The vote was done by role call, and it was my first time seeing that process (for an overly-eager intern like myself, it proved most stimulating.)