ST. ALBANS — Truck weights, possible changes to the current use program, immigration reform, and labeling of genetically modified foods were among the topics raised during a visit by Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross.
Ross held a listening session with members of the public on Friday afternoon at the St. Albans Free Library.
The St. Albans Cooperative Creamery is seeking to expand its Canadian customer base, but weight limits on trucks may prove a hindrance, according to creamery president Ralph McNall.
The trucks arriving from Canada have a 100,000-pound capacity, which is legal in Canada and New York State, but the limit in Vermont is 80,000 pounds. It is possible to get a one day permit in Vermont to haul 99,000 pounds, but the permit is expensive.
McNall expressed concern that the creamery could lose Canadian customers to New York State because of the trucking issue.
Last session, the Vermont House passed a bill increasing penalties for early withdrawal from the current use program with the intention of discouraging people who intend to develop their land in the short term from putting it into current use for a few years while arranging for development.
Owners of land enrolled in the current use program pay taxes based on the current use of the land, even if its development potential inflates its value. The state pays towns the difference between the assessed value of the land and its value at its current use.
The program is intended to reduce the tax burden on lands used for forestry and agriculture. According to Ross, agricultural land is 25 percent of the land enrolled in the program, but 50 percent of the cost.
“Current use is making me extremely nervous,” said McNall. “Our margins are so small that if we’re expected to pay more in property taxes, for example, we’re done.”
“I don’t think that anybody wants to get rid of the current use program, but I think there is some interest in changing it,” said Ross.
The conversation in the Vermont Legislature over the program “may get down to philosophical nub of why we need this program,” he added, suggesting supporters will need to explain the importance of agriculture to Vermont, including the amount of money agriculture brings into the state.
The St. Albans Cooperative Creamery brings roughly $1.6 million into Vermont each day from the sale of milk, said McNall.
Tom Gates, also with the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, expressed concern about raw milk. Proponents are seeking to make it easier for farmers to sell raw milk. Raw milk is sold without being pasteurized to destroy bacteria.
Gates expressed concern that if there is an incident with someone getting ill from raw milk, it will damage the public image of all milk, including pasteurized milk.
“It’s really about the image of dairy here in the State of Vermont,” said Gates. “Any issue with raw milk on a farm would have a negative impact on dairy as a whole.”
Gates also asked for assistance in helping the legislature to understand farms are small businesses.
Ross agreed that agriculture needs to be seen as a business and as a key factor in economic development. He noted that the number of jobs connected to agriculture is undercounted, since jobs at processing facilities such as Commonwealth Dairy are counted as manufacturing jobs, not agriculture.
“Agriculture and farming and food gets short shrift all the time,” said Ross, and are not recognized as the most important piece of economy.
However, he also cautioned, “If you want to be recognized as a business, you’ve got to play ball as a business.” Farmers can’t ask for special treatment because they run farms if they also want to be seen and treated as a business, he added.
A representative from one of the state’s largest agriculture-related businesses, Ben & Jerry’s, a premium ice cream manufacturer, suggested that non-genetically modified feed is a potential opportunity for Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s is anticipating that consumers will be looking for products from animals that were not fed genetically modified feed.
Ross said he supports labeling of genetically modified foods if that’s what consumers want. “At the end of the day, I think the marketplace is a good arbiter of what ought to be produced,” he said.
Ninety five percent of the corn and soybeans grown in Vermont is genetically modified, said Ross. It’s fed to our cows and goes into our dairy product, he noted
“Genetically engineered, I would argue, doesn’t make them bad by definition,” said Ross.
He described the current level of discussion about genetically modified foods as “enormously frustrating.” Companies have funded nearly all of the research on the safety of genetically modified foods with a stake in the outcome, he noted, while opponents spin arguments “on the head of a pin.”
“I think we need to have balanced thoughtful conversation that is grounded in good science… with independent, third-party scientists,” said Ross.
Pointing to changing climates and existing pressure on the world’s food supply, Ross said, “We’re in a tight spot and we’re going to need to have research funded.”
That research should include genetic engineering of foods, he said.
Jack Parent, vice president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, raised another controversial topic – immigration reform.
“Immigration reform scares me a lot,” said Parent. Seventy-five percent of the milk in the country is produced with immigrant labor, he said, expressing concern farmers could lose their labor supply if the federal government “screws things up.”
Tom Berry, of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office, said, “Right now what D.C. is doing that’s screwed up is nothing.”
The Senate passed an immigration reform bill that included documented foreign workers for dairy farms and gave oversight for agricultural labor programs to USDA.
“It’s dead on arrival in the House,” said Berry.
Ross suggested Vermont farmers will need to work with farmers in other states, getting those farmers to pressure their representatives to act on immigration reform.
Secretaries and commissioners of agriculture across the country are all in support of immigration reform, said Ross. “There is unanimity among my colleagues to do something,” he said. “To have Congress not act is infuriating.”
Franklin County farmer Mark Magnan pointed to the efforts being made by farmers to improve efficiency. “I think it shows dairymen are good businesspeople,” he said. “I think it shows we’re cognizant of what we’re up against.”
Magnan touched on a favorite theme of Ross’s as well – the need to educate the public about where their food comes from and the challenges of producing it.
“I think people have to realize when they reach for that gallon of milk on the shelf, that’s dirt cheap,” said Magnan. “There’s a lot that’s invested in that gallon of milk.”