RICHFORD — Wednesday morning candidates for state representative in the Franklin-5 district were invited to a student-led forum at the Richford Middle/High School, where attending candidates presented their views on Act 46, agriculture and gun control.

Only three of the district’s five candidates – Democrats Charen Fegard and Daniel Nadeau and Independent Linda Collins – attended. Republicans Shane Rhodes and Josh Aldrich were invited, but did not attend.

Students twice brought up agriculture, aking candidates to address an ongoing depression in the dairy economy and agriculture as a whole.

“We should encourage schools, prisons and summer food programs to use a lot more dairy products,” Collins said. “I don’t know what the hot lunch program is here… but let’s make macaroni and cheese with real cheese and milk, let’s make pudding with real milk and let’s try to use dairy products so there’s more of a demand for it.”

Fegard looked to encourage diversification on the farm in lieu of tackling the low dairy prices themselves, as those, she noted, were controlled at the federal level.

“I don’t know that any of us have the ability to raise milk prices, but we can do things to support farmers,” Fegard answered. “We can look at the way our particular soil here can support farms diversifying more.”

“I support farmers, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Nadeau said. “You’re in trouble.”

Nadeau connected his family’s experience as farmers to the national and international economy, stating that the cost of producing milk on Vermont’s farms made it uncompetitive with larger producers in the west and on the global market.

“Vermont’s always been a poor state – it’s not the greatest agricultural land and it’s not the greatest farming land,” Nadeau answered. “The issue is that Vermont is now competing on the national and world stage for everything.

“Your local foods are no longer really your local foods,” he continued. “They’re grown in other places, and other places can make and produce those for a lot cheaper.”

According to Nadeau, there’d be no “magic ‘what’s-the-next-cow’” item… because you would not be able to undercut the opposition and the growers from another part of the country.”

“With conventional dairy, that certainly holds true,” Fegard said, suggesting there might be a better alternative in more localized organic farming, contrasting that favorably to more industrialized forms of farming found in larger states.

She suggested that communities in Franklin County could start encouraging the market for that organic food, which could then help farmers looking to diversify production. Fegard also said that, with the recent drafting of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, Vermont’s organic dairies might have a new market in Canada.

Independent Linda Collins during Richford’s candidate forum.

Fegard agreed with Collins’s suggestion that the state encourage schools and prisons to use locally-sourced dairy, extending that suggestion to include restaurants.

Collins seconded the need to diversify and added the state should encourage schools to locally source other foods, like apples.

She also noted that state officials and farmers were now lobbying to address milk prices directly, implying that things could improve for area farmers.

Gun laws and mental health

Early on in Wednesday’s forum, Richford K-12 Principal Beth O’Brien asked the candidates about how they’d address mental health concerns in the state, citing in particular a law that allowed those needing treatment to personally opt out of that treatment despite the recommendations of counselors, schools and family.

According to O’Brien, this has led to “a lot of people self-medicating.”

Fegard argued that the stigma surrounding mental health needed to be addressed and that seeking treatment should be encouraged.

“A lot of people don’t come forward with their struggles, and that’s a shame,” Fegard said. “We need to make it part of our everyday conversation so people are not afraid to get help.”

She admitted that, as a newcomer to politics, she didn’t know laws on patient autonomy. Still, she said that some procedures healthcare providers in the state are starting to turn to, such as electroshock therapy, inspired some uncertainty in the candidate.

Nadeau connected some mental health issues to the economy.

“It’s an overlapping issue,” Nadeau said. “If you go to college and graduate expecting to get a high-paying job but work at Wal-Mart for eight years, that’s going to have a psychological impact.

Collins was blunter, addressing the students directly.

“I know from teaching for 35 years in Enosburg… that kids get depressed,” Collins said. “What I have is advice for you: Go talk to somebody… and get it out.”

A student then inquired about the candidates’ stances on a set of gun control laws passed earlier this year.

“I was where you were ten years ago,” Nadeau said. “It never popped into my mind that there’d be a school shooting… but now, for you guys growing up, it’s a legitimate threat.”

Nadeau added he approved of the current laws and believed there needed “to be requirements” added to the laws.

“I don’t want to take any Second Amendment rights away, but a few amendments to the law… might help a little bit,” Collins said. “We’ve all gone through the drills where you’re hiding in the corner and you can’t really relate to it… but it’s happened, so we need to find a way to compromise and let responsible people have guns.”

She said they should pay attention to warning signs and address the mental health component of school shootings.

Democrats Charen Fegard and Daniel Nadeau

“I’m not sure that the balance between gun rights and school safety is ever going to be perfect,” Fegard said. “People should be able to go to school and feel safe and be safe… Hopefully some of these laws will lead to more safety.”

Act 46

Charen, when asked about the state’s law governing mandated school consolidation, said that she believed Act 46 was “well intentioned,” but added that she thought the “off-ramps” allowed by the act were being ignored by the State Board of Education.

She cited Franklin, which has argued it should be precluded from a possible forced merger due to geographic isolation and its low per-pupil spending.

Nadeau agreed with Fegard, stating that a school like North Hero might benefit from the act’s passing, but that schools like Richford, whose community rejected two attempts to voluntarily merge, shouldn’t be forced to merge.

“It’s a very flawed bill,” he said. “For a lot of schools like Richford and others, it’s a very poor way to enforce rule.”

Collins was very critical of the forced mergers being handed down by the state, citing her own record of voting against two previous attempts to merge Richford with neighboring school districts. She also noted that Enosburgh and Richford had worked together in the past, meaning the recommended consolidation of Enosburg and Richford shouldn’t be needed.

“All towns in the district voted no, and then they again voted no,” Collins said. “I have this issue with telling people that they can vote on something… and say ‘we’re going to do it our way anyway.’”

Public schools in each Franklin-5 town were recommended for a forced merger. In three of those towns – Highgate, Franklin and Richford – those recommended mergers have been historically opposed.

Berkshire, meanwhile, approved a merger with Bakersfield’s school district. Under recommendations filed with Act 46, they may be forced to merge with Montgomery’s and Sheldon’s school districts as well.